'I Just Go Where the Wind Blows'

On a rainy March morning, Robert Frost is drinking a cup of coffee in Georgetown.

‘See this book? It’s got about 700 pages and that’s my entire life. I’ve been writing 70 years and to only have 700 pages, that’s—what—10 pages a year?’

Mr. Frost isn’t really holding up a book. Nor is the man drinking a cup of coffee Robert Frost. But he may as well be.

Dwane Starlin has been impersonating the beloved American poet for years, just one of many characters in his repertoire. Mark Twain and Capitol Hill native John Philip Sousa are in the historian’s back pocket.

‘I also play John Philip Sousa’s alter ego, John Philip Kazoo-sa,’ Dwane says—pausing to let the play on words—and his grin—build. ‘Because I play one of his marches on a kazoo!’

Yes, Dwane plays the kazoo. He’s also been a tour guide with Dumbarton House for seven years, once played with Bugles Across America and, should the occasion ever arise, owns a Civil War uniform. For the Union, of course. 

The man of many hats, voices and stories can tell you all about Georgetown’s history, but he didn’t discover it himself until 1983—quickly developing a neighborhood routine that began his first weekend in DC.

‘I would come over the bridge, stop at the Georgetown Bagelry, get a pumpernickel bagel with horseradish and olive spread, some coffee, buy the New York Times, and then I’d walk over to Oak Hill Cemetery. I’d sit there and read the paper, eat my bagel, drink my coffee and just pontificate. My neighbors didn’t bother me.’

Another grin.

Dwane lives to tell the stories of the dead—an interest that runs in the family. Born and raised in a small community in Colorado bordering the plains of Nebraska, Dwane’s mother founded the Washington County Pioneer Museum in 1970. By the end of her working days, she’d expanded the museum to five buildings and published three books.

‘This is a little lady that just had a high school education,’ Dwane says. ‘She’s someone I have to live up to.’

Much of Dwane’s life is stepping into big shoes, bringing to life the people and places that shaped Georgetown and beyond on all seven of his tours. Beyond the iconic sites, Dwane relishes taking tour groups down the road less traveled. One of his favorite stops is Dent Street, between 33rd and 35th Streets.

‘They discovered the body of freed slave Yarrow Mamout there, and across the street is where Jackie and JFK first lived after they got married. Two doors up is a gentleman by the name of Fahey who is on the board of governors of the Smithsonian. I like going to places where other people don’t go.’

Along the way, Dwane inevitably runs into someone he calls his ‘guest lecturer’—from a 100-year-old woman who recently passed away to a former Washington Post reporter known as The Ambassador of Q Street. Each has an anecdote to share about that particular block that won’t show up in any history book. 

‘I had a tour on N Street about six months ago, and we’re across the street from the temple and this particular house when a guy comes up to us and says, ‘Do you know that Douglas MacArthur’s first wife lived in that house?’ I said ‘how do you know?’ and he said, ‘Because I was her gardener.’’

Dwane knows a lot about a lot, but he doesn’t pretend to know everything. It is, in many ways, the secret of a great tour guide. He lets his audience guide what they want to hear, and encourages them to ask questions. Most frequent among them, ‘Where does the name Georgetown come from?’ (Hint: It’s not George Washington.)

‘I love questions. There are only two types of questions. Great questions and good questions. Great questions are the ones I know the answer to. Good questions are ones where I’ll look you right back in the eye and say, ‘That’s a good question!’”

On a recent tour, as everyone studied one the few pictures ever circulated of FDR in a wheelchair, it was Dwane’s turn to do the asking.

‘I said, ‘Do you think if everyone knew FDR was in a wheelchair, he would have been elected? Let me give you an example. Stephen Hawking—a brilliant man—probably would never be elected President, right?’’

Everyone nodded in agreement. Then an 8-year-old boy spoke up. ‘Of course he wouldn’t, he’s British!’

‘I said yeah, you’re right. Next question!’

Just don’t ask which Dwane likes best. From a Halloween-inspired Spirits of Georgetown route, to tours focused on places of worship, the Kennedys, and even cupcakes, it’s akin to asking a mother to pick a favorite child.  

They’re all different, and special in their own way, and that’s the way Dwane likes it. 

‘Not only do no days repeat; I’m not even sure how the days are going to end. I just go where the wind blows.’