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Celebrating a Dreamer

Alden is recognized for work at Washington Post and McLean Community Center.

For over half a century, Robert Alden dedicated his life to his two passions: a central meeting place in McLean and a career in journalism.

This weekend, Alden received a Distinguished Alumni Achievement award from George Washington University for the creation of the McLean Community Center, a project he envisioned at the age of 21, and for his more than 50 years at the Washington Post.

"I had an image of a community center with a green area, a library and a cultural center in McLean," Alden said, who eventually became director of the construction of the McLean Community Center as it is today. The Alden Theater, home to many plays, musicals and community events, is named for him.

In the meantime, Alden was working at the Washington Post, a job he would hold for more than 50 years, serving as sports writer and editor from the 1950s until his retirement in 2000.

"I was an active member of the National Press Club for more than half a century and started the archives there in the 1960s," said Alden, who also helped to create the archive system used by Fairfax County. During his work with the county's archives, he found a document from a county representative who participated in the Virginia Constitution Convention of 1905.

It was also Alden's suggestion that led to the naming of Dolley Madison Boulevard, although when the street signs were initially produced, the "e" in her first name was missing.

"I had to call and tell them the signs were wrong after they'd already been put up," Alden said with a chuckle.

Alden was editor of the world news section of the Post in 1974 when then-President Richard Nixon resigned his position.

"We knew he'd called a press conference, but no one knew until he spoke that at 9 p.m. that night that he was resigning," he said. Alden had also been at the same desk the nights that President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, were assassinated.

There have been other times when Alden was able to beat the competition to a major news story.

"We just happened to have three correspondents in Moscow at the time of the coup that overthrew Mikel Gorbachev and [Boris] Yeltsin saved him," he said. "We remade the front page of the paper seven times between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. when we went to press. We ran over 150,00 issues that day. People woke up and saw pictures of these tanks rolling by the Soviet White House and had no idea what was going on."

HIS WORK IN McLean and his dedication to creating a meeting place in the community is a project he Alden is increasingly proud of, although he and his wife split their time between McLean and Vermont.

"Bob is certainly a person who has been instrumental in getting the Community Center area off the ground," said Bill Bersie, president of the McLean Community Center Governing Board. "He is an important person in the community ... he still comes by whenever he's in town to see how things are going here."

Peter Gray, the deputy director of the Community Center, said Alden's vision of a cultural center with park land surrounding it was modeled after a "New England-style village green."

"Bob knows everybody in McLean still, and he's been such an energetic activist and enthusiast in the community," Gray said. "He continues to be an active guy — he's very mentally alert. Whenever he and his wife Diane are in town, they stop by to see what's playing at the theater."

After the McLean Community Center was constructed, the Board of Supervisors decided to name the theater after Alden.

"It was his idea to have the theater built in the Community Center in order to support local theater groups," said Clare Kiley, performing arts director at the McLean Community Center. "It was such a beautiful theater when it was built and it was made even more beautiful when it was renovated in 1988, when we added dressing rooms and a rehearsal hall," she said.

Alden has long shown a love for local theater, she said. "He's a huge supporter of the arts in general. He's so proud of the center and the theater. It was his dream."

Despite no longer living in McLean full-time, Kiley said Alden is still an important and connected part of the community.

"What he's done for McLean is immeasurable," she said. "He had this vision to get all this done. After McLean was built, Reston followed and used some of his ideas. This is a good idea that has gotten better with age."

As an executive director of the Community Center for 25 years, Page Shelp described Alden as "a load of energy."

"He's always been dedicated to the idea of a community center, and I have to wonder if it would've been done without him," she said. "He was especially instrumental in getting the theater put in, instead of a gym or something that could've been used by the community."

Shelp remembers Alden being passionate about getting the center built the way he envisioned it and adamant that it be built, but willing to compromise if things seemed in danger of being left out.

"He always had his goals in mind, but he could modify those goals if he couldn't over come an obstacle," she said.

Alden's dream has been realized as much as possible, Shelp said, but it can never be fully completed because "he always has something else in his pocket. He dreams really big, and I really don't think he has the kind of dreams that can be fully realized because there's always something more he can think of to be done," she said.

Receiving the recognition from his alma mater, where he received three degrees in the course of 17 years, was a surprise to Alden.

"My wife and I haven't been to a ball at George Washington in quite some time," he said. "

His family's involvement with the University goes back to his parents, he said.

"My parents met at a streetcar stop for George Washington and eloped from there as well," Alden said. "My grandfather started the dental school there in 1909, so there's a whole generation of dentists who were trained by him before the school was incorporated into the medical school."