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LOCAL LEADER/John Warner - A public servant returns to private life

Posted on Nov 25,2008
Filed Under Local Leaders , Community,

photo by John Arundel/Local Kicks
Sen. John Warner at last spring's
dedication of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

I live in Alexandria, and here you never know who you're going to run into taking your dog for a stroll.

Wandering through the back streets of my neighborhood one day last year, I found Sen. John Warner (R-VA) tending to his sunflowers and begonias. He invited me over, so our dogs could romp in his yard.
As they played, we talked about the media business, our families and Warner's impending retirement, now only four weeks away.
Coasting into retirement after three decades in the Senate, Warner should no longer need to seek the approval of anyone, but these days the courtly and humble Virginia gentleman spends a lot of time thanking the people who've given him "a marvelous life."
More than a year ago, after conferring with his wife and his grown children, Warner said he sat down to write "a short note to all Virginians."  He scribbled his letter in long-hand, "late into the evening," because he felt some of his thoughts were "so personal that I had to put them in writing."
With e-mails these days the dominant form of communicating, Warner's eloquent missive to "My Fellow Virginians" harkens back to simpler times, when the spirit of bi-partisanship and getting along for the common good was the norm.  
"At first, I thanked them, and thanked them at each paragraph of this message," Warner said. "I wanted to express my profound appreciation for all that so many have done for me."
Warner has always viewed public service as a privilege. At the University of Virginia last year, he urged students to try and serve the needs of others at some point in their lifetimes. "Don't worry about becoming a senator," he cautioned, with a playful glint in eye. "Come talk to me before doing that."
Looking back over a long career of "generous opportunities" in public service, he had been too busy to keep tabs. "Surpisingly, I'd never sat down and added it all up," he said. "I added up a total of 45 years in which I'd been privileged to be a public servant."
Over that time, beside him was "a marvelous family" of brothers, sisters, parents and children. "My mother lived to be 94 years old, giving me advice up until the last breathe she drew, about how she disagreed with the votes I cast the day before."
Standing beside him along the way has been Jeanne Vander Myde Warner, the lifelong Alexandria resident and Old Town Realtor he married five years ago. "Beside me is a very devoted and loving wife who's listened to me for the past six months," Warner said. "To be or nor to be, to go on or not to go on....and patiently saying whichever way you go I will support you and follow you...I thank you, dear wife."
Warner has made Alexandria his home for two decades, participating in its parades, its civic and community life. A Scottish descendant, he parades in his colorful kilt in the Scottish Walk in Old Town, and last year came to the Old Town clubhouse of the Alexandria Boys and Girls Club to announce $500,000 congressional funding to help revamp the facilities.
"All of us in Alexandria have been so fortunate to have had such an honorable, effective, eloquent, and dedicated United States Senator in our midst," said Gant Redmon, the Old Town lawyer who's known Warner for 45 years. "He'll get a well-deserved rest from his public labors as he returns to private life in 2009."
Warner and his wife Jeanne have been frequent hosts of Alexandria Garden Club tours of their garden, with Warner showing off his favorite plant, the tuberous begonia.  “We moved into our home one year ago and our garden has been a work in progress ever since," Jeanne Warner said at the time. "John has special pride in his collection of tuberous begonias, and, has worked hard cultivating the bank that faces our street. We inherited a lovely garden, and, have fun adding our own touches."
In the marble hallways of Capitol Hill, Warner was known as a highly-respected lawmaker and consenus-builder at the center of debate over military issues. Lately, he had been wrestling with the United States deepening involvement in Iraq.
"Over the last few weeks he seemed to have lost the spring in his step," Chip Reid, CBS' Chief Congressional Correspondent told me. "He'd be walking down the hall with his head down, deep in thought, his hand swiping the wall as he walked. He looked more like a Senator on his way out than heading for re-election."
At the age of 81, Warner clearly wrestled with his decision to seek re-election to another six-year term in the Senate. With the nation struggling with an unpopular war, his expertise has rarely been more relevant. But as he noted, the Senate is a demanding job, and he would be 87 at the end of another term.
"I really worked back and forth, keeping a little diary for six months,"  Warner said. "I really felt strongly that maybe if I were to stay I could continue to help the office of the President, the members of the Congress and work our way through the complexities of this. This is the most complex series of problems I've ever seen in my life...We are living in dangerous times."
By early January, however, the job of solving those issues will be ceded to others.
And John Wilson Warner can spend more time with his wife, children and grandchildren. And, no doubt, in his beloved garden.
"I have done my best, as I humbly say," Warner said. "So I say with great humility and thankfulness in my heart, I yield my ground so others may advance."

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