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From the outside, the former Buchanan School at 13th and D streets SE looks like it’s been abandoned and never put back to use. The massive, four-building campus has no activity during the day, and a few windows lit up at night are the only indication of what goes on inside. It’s not an uncommon sight: Dozens of District school buildings have been decommissioned over the years as the city’s population of young people has shrank. Those buildings have found new life as condos, nonprofit offices, or homeless shelters.
The Buchanan School, though, is neither abandoned nor finding new life.
For the last 13 years, the property has been the domain of Walter Boek, an elderly ex-professor with the best intentions. The interior is brilliantly clean and well-maintained, but also oddly antique; chandeliers hang from the ceilings on the first floor and faded paintings grace the hallways. Boek’s organization is called the International Graduate University, and indeed, there are the trappings of an academic institution: A bulletin board with reminders of tuition and theses due, an admissions office where students are processed.
It’s not by any means, however, a normal university. A few classes take place there in the evenings, making use of one or two rooms at any given time. Boek has failed several times to attain an educational license from the District, and now the city is suing to recover nearly $400,000 in property taxes, saying an unlicensed school shouldn’t be considered a nonprofit entitled to an exemption.
Boek, an anachronistic presence hobbling around the property pulling weeds in a full suit, is pretty sure it’s all just a vendetta waged by people who covet his land, which is now assessed at $10.7 million—nearly seven times what he bought it for in 1998—and right next to a Safeway. (That seemed to be news to the usual development suspects, several of whom say they aren’t angling for the property.) The neighborhood is almost wholly set against him, and Boek—who declines to give his age, but was old enough to get a masters degree in 1948—is stuck in a defensive crouch.
“There are people who wanted to have this property, tear down the buildings, and put up houses,” he says. “We aren’t interested in selling, but there have been people who would like to have it.”
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The way Boek tells it, the National Graduate University—it became the “International Graduate University” in 2009—started out in 1967 with some high ideals. Founded by a former deputy of President Harry Truman, it ran programs in management and human service while based in Arlington. Boek’s two books, published in the early 1990s by the university’s College of Democracy, are basic primers on the democratic system. He says stacks of them have been sent to Zambia recently to help set up a government there (though finding independent confirmation of this and some of Boek’s other claims isn’t easy).
When the Control Board made the city sell off dozens of school properties in the late ’90s, Boek came in as the highest bidder for the Buchanan School site, and put millions into new roofs, windows, and heating systems. How does he pay for it all? Boek has a deep-pocketed board—an executive vice president of the mining firm Alcoa Inc., for example—and the organization has built up a small nest egg. The school’s most recent tax filings claim very little in the way of donations or tuition revenue, but report a few hundred thousand dollars a year in investment income on several million dollars’ worth of stocks.
As a remnant of its roots in political science, IGU used to teach liberal arts classes, and in 2006 was certified to issue masters degrees. But the District revoked the provisional license a year later, saying Boek had failed to report on the school’s activities. Since then, the campus has hosted a hodgepodge of vocational programs, like a course in construction, and another for substance abuse counselors. Mayor Vince Gray’s administration took an interest in a janitorial program for homeless veterans (though Office of Veterans Affairs director Matt Cary says that so far only two out of the 13 people to be awarded certificates have found jobs). Three years ago, Boek invited the unfunded, all-volunteer H.O.P.E. Project, an information technology training program, to use classrooms at the school when a student got robbed while walking to its first location in Anacostia.
“We call it home,” says H.O.P.E. Project founder Ray Bell, who teaches young adults how to work computer help desks. “It’s definitely more than space, it’s a home away from home.”
The campus’ vast, empty buildings could be home to a lot more programs like Bell’s. The problem is, Boek is very selective about who he allows to use them. He won’t let groups rent space, which he fears might undermine his nonprofit status, and only allows a few veterans-oriented groups to host functions there for free. Boek requires programs to become part of the university, funneling all of their money through the school’s treasurer.
“Most of them have their egos involved, and they can’t come here unless they become a university program,” Boek says, showing me a thick folder of rejected letters and emails from local schools, churches, and nonprofits that wanted to use his buildings. “We aren’t renting space, and we are not allowing people to do things here that are not ours. Except the Chinese,” he notes, describing a group of officials who come once in a while to learn about the American system of government. (The Dalai Lama has visited as well.) Boek claims there’s a police office in the building, but both the Metropolitan Police Department and Capitol Police deny having one there.
Sometimes Boek isn’t entirely in control of what happens on his grounds. The American Legion, for example, waltzed in to set up a post without his permission; they say someone connected with the University told them it would be OK. “That’s a fluke,” Boek says. “On Tuesday I came up, for some reason, and saw all this furniture. They came in at night, and they were told they could.” So they stayed.
Despite the very small number of people who actually use his buildings, Boek derives tremendous satisfaction from those who do. On an evening when a H.O.P.E. Project class was in session, Boek tells me for the third time about a graduate who had recently landed a $46,000 job.
“Some of them are on welfare. But they won’t be, when they’re through,” he says, smiling in wonder at their progress. “My goodness, many of these people are deprived individuals, they are maladjusted to society, you know? And look at what happened to them! It’s so nice. It makes me just happy. I wish we could run more than one of those courses, but we have to have very qualified people to do it.”
* * *
Boek, whose massive office is lined with snapshots of himself and assorted notables, might be good at making friends in high places (or at least creating the appearance of a connection). But he started making enemies of nearby residents from the get-go.
“I knew from the minute I met Dr. Boek that he was a bad neighbor,” says WTOP reporter Mark Segraves, who used to live down the street. Another neighbor, Peter Theil, remembers Boek asking residents what they’d like to see happen at the school when he bought the building—and then ignoring what they suggested.
“He and his wife took a picture of our group, and put it up on the wall,” Theil says. “We never heard back from him on any of that stuff. Nobody heard back, as far as I know.”
A string of offenses followed. Boek declined a neighborhood request to turn on his outdoor lights at night in the still-dodgy neighborhood. According to Segraves, he tried to get John “Peterbug” Matthews, a beloved neighborhood fixture who runs a shoe repair academy, evicted by getting then-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) to send a letter asking the Department of the Interior to take back a piece of land on the university’s block that the District controls and has leased to Matthews. When Boek proposed a charter school for at-risk youth, the neighborhood went to war—mistrusting the operator Boek brought in to run it—and the application was denied.
Boek also antagonized the local political establishment. When D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells was on the school board, Boek accused him of trying to exact a bribe in exchange for smoothing the way for the university’s license application. Wells says he was simply trying to convince Boek to host a charter school that had lost its building for one year, and reacts with unusual ire when Boek’s name comes up.
“He does nothing for the community,” Wells snaps. “He’s sitting on that building. The bushes are overgrown, the area’s dangerous. He’s a hostile occupier. He does not help with the families and the kids. He is not available, and that building is hardly used at all…the guy creeps me out.”
As of late, the neighbors have started playing hardball. Segraves, Theil, and a few others put together the documentation to call into question the university’s nonprofit status, and the Office of the Attorney General initiated legal proceedings for back taxes on the property in 2010—along with taxes on Boek’s house in Palisades, which the university has owned since 1972. The university calls the decision arbitrary and capricious, and the case is in mediation.
Through all of it, Boek’s high-powered board has been pretty hands-off. The chairman for the last two years, longtime District lawyer Clinton Chapman, says he first became aware of the university when Boek posthumously inducted Chapman’s wife into the Democracy Hall of Fame. Mostly, though, he lets Boek run the school’s affairs—including fundraising—even though there isn’t the money to pay Boek a salary. (The most recent tax filing lists $48,000 worth of compensation and benefits, but doesn’t say who’s paid what.) If the District wins its suit, someone will have to bail the school out.
“We’ll just have to pay it,” Chapman says. “Somebody will have to pay it, or lose it.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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