AUGUST 31, 2015

STRANGER: Barbara Crocker
LOCATION: Le Diplomate, 1601 14th Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Finding out how one woman stays young at heart

Barbara Crocker is the American who went up a hill and came down a mountain.

The vivacious 62-year-old makes sure she’s constantly on the move, and there’s no greater example of that than the treks she’s made to the summit to two of the tallest mountains in the world. She worked her way up to those expeditions following years of hiking. But as I’d learn during a fun dinner with her in Washington, DC, she also keeps busy with a host of activities ranging from fundraising for educational efforts to running her own design business.

“My life’s an open book,” she said with a smile as we sat down at Le Diplomate, one of the most popular of the ever-growing list of restaurants on 14th Street NW.

So without trepidation I sat down my tape recorder between us as we settled in at our table alongside one wall of the sprawling venue. It’s been designed to look like a classic bistro in Paris including, as news reports have said, floorboards meant to creak and furnishings designed to make it look like it’s been around for years. The walls are lined with tea-colored wood, and lace curtains hang across the large windows in the main room where we dined.

It wasn’t my first visit to Le Diplomate but it’s a place I never have any hesitation to visit. Barbara and I briefly chatted about the amazing transformation of 14th Street (Le Diplomate used to be a laundromat, and there were few restaurants of note in the area several years ago). When Barbara got in touch to do dinner and suggested meeting at the French restaurant, I quickly accepted. The place is always buzzing with apparently happy diners, many looking like they’ve just left the office. What was it that made this energetic woman want to get dinner with a stranger?

“I love adventure and I love good food, so I thought, ‘Why not?’” she replied.

Barbara has lived all over the United States, including a childhood in Baltimore; her college years at Georgetown University in the District; and time in Florida and New York. About five years ago she decided to relocate from the Sunshine State to DC, saying she missed life in a big city. Plus it’s relatively close to her three children, who all live in the Big Apple.

Living in the nation’s capital is better for Barbara to continue her long-running efforts fundraising on behalf of Georgetown’s scholarship programs. She chairs the regional branch of the university’s $1.5 billion capital campaign while also mentoring kids on scholarships and doing other work for Georgetown.

As she explained over a champagne aperitif, education — and ensuring equal access to it — has long been one of her priorities. “I’ve always believed in opportunity regardless of background. Just because people are born into bad situations doesn’t mean they don’t have brains, doesn’t mean they don’t have the motivation to succeed. They shouldn’t be penalized because of where they come from.”

So one of the programs that Barbara works with and raises funds for helps pay the tuition of children who are the first generation from their families to go to university. Often their parents don’t speak English and can’t fill out the forms for their child’s university applications, and most of them come from poor backgrounds. It’s these youngsters that Barbara says need to be nurtured.

With a broad smile, she cited the example of a student named Luisa who was from Miami. Luisa came to the university on a scholarship and Barbara worked closely with her, helping her get through Georgetown. She mentored Luisa and offered advice on setting up a business in Miami with Luisa’s quirky idea of making ice cream with liquid nitrogen. Barbara said the company is “going gangbusters” and that Luisa is one of many examples of the benefits of a good education.

“I have always thought, ‘There but for the grace of god go I.’ If I had been born into a slum who knows what I’d be doing? Kids don’t ask to be born into a poverty stricken family or to live in a homeless shelter,” Barbara said. “Giving them an opportunity through education is critical. I want to help these families and to watch them thrive. It’s very important to me.”

Those efforts have won recognition from Georgetown, which in 2008 named Barbara one of the winners of its John Carroll award. According to the university’s website, this award is doled out annually “to honor alumni whose achievements exemplify the ideals and traditions of Georgetown University and its founder, Archbishop John Carroll.”

Barbara, who graduated Georgetown in 1975 after studying Spanish and linguistics, was recognized for her years of fundraising efforts. She said her philosophy on seeking donations is not to simply stretch out a hand and ask for cash, but instead invite someone to join a cause — in this case education to improve children’s lives. “I don’t care if you donate $5 or you donate $5 million. Whatever you can spare is great, because it goes to teaching that can change lives.”

As Barbara reflected on that last comment, our waiter arrived with our starters.

I chose the ricotta ravioli, a dish I’ve had before. Four large raviolo are coated in a thick plum tomato sauce and topped off with shredded cheese and some basil. The only downside is that the plate is a tad on the salty side. But the pasta is fresh and well made, and the rich cheese inside is complemented perfectly by the flavorful sauce with large chunks of tomatoes.

Barbara kept things simple with an order of the restaurant’s hand-cut fries, confessing that fries are one of her favorite things to eat — and her family and friends all know this guilty pleasure. Her daughter-in-law even bought her mum an iPhone case decorated with fries.

They’re made particularly well at Le Diplomate, coming out piping hot and with just the right amount of seasoning. They work great as a snack, or as part of one of the entrees.

I knew I had fries coming with my main dish so focused on my pasta. While I ate, Barbara elaborated on the life story that took her from Baltimore to around the States and back to the area. After growing up in Charm City, she enrolled at Georgetown. She loved her time at university, which included a junior year studying in Spain and traveling around Europe.

Back in the States she looked for work. “I had this naive notion that I could be a translator at the United Nations but I wasn’t fluent and they weren’t hiring,” she said with a laugh.

Instead, she soon found a job with Chemical Bank working for their metropolitan branch’s real estate division in New York City. She loved the work and was with the company for about five years, then moved on to working for an investment company, also in New York, that bought commercial property all over the United States for foreign investors. By now she’d been in the Big Apple for 10 years.

Then she got married (she is now single) and moved with her then-husband to Florida where they managed a host of properties in and around Boca Raton. That’s where they raised their three children, and Barbara has nothing but praise for her time down South.

Eventually, however, she realized that she wanted to live in a city again, and so it was that she came back to the District, living in the Georgetown neighborhood. It’s a location that allows her to do her fundraising close to the university, but also gives her the flexibility to travel across the country to see friends — and overseas to scale mountains.

While working for Chemical Bank she was sent by the company on an Outward Bound exercise. This meant lots of outdoors activities, surviving alone on a small island over several days. “I had never done anything like it before, but it was incredible,” she said.

Going through that grueling experience helped Barbara realize that, “I could do anything if I just put my mind to it.” Though she’d never been particularly athletic as a child — she joked she was always last picked for teams in gym classes at school — she started taking up more energetic hobbies.

On a trip to Colorado, she learned how to ski from a friend’s lessons. She started taking hikes around Telluride, where her family owned a home. Other ways of staying active included swimming and running, even taking part in marathons. “My whole outlook just changed,” she said. “I love doing this, I love being healthy, I’m happier that way.”

During her many hikes, she realized that she was lucky in that she has no problem physiologically coping with changes in altitudes. That came in handy when she decided several years ago to up the stakes and go from hiking to trying to reach a mountaintop.

Her first attempt was Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, with a peak 19,341 feet above sea level. She described the trek as relatively luxurious. A group of roughly 20 guides assisted her up the mountain and would set up the campsites whenever they had to rest. “It was like a walk in the park,” she said, when she compares it to the second summit she climbed.

Trek number two was to the top of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, standing 22,837 feet above sea level. The difference between Kilimanjaro’s 19,341 feet and Aconcagua’s 22,837 feet was apparently significant, Barbara said, and getting to the top was a much greater struggle. “Every step forward felt like two steps back,” she added.

But the effort is worth it, according to Barbara. “Getting to the top is what it’s about, reaching the goal, the fact you’ve done something that most people haven’t.”

The only real downside is coming back down, she said. “I hate it. It’s torture,” said Barbara. So much energy has been invested in getting to the summit that most people are running on fumes when they make the descent, and that’s the most dangerous part, she said. With depleted energy, the trek down is particularly hard on one’s knees, she added.

Nevertheless, she’s already planning her next summit and is toying with the idea of visiting Russia next summer to try and scale Mount Elbrus, at 18,442 feet.

“But I’ll never try Mount Everest,” she said.

Before I could find out why Barbara has ruled out a trek to the top of Everest — which stands 29,029 feet above sea level in Nepal — our waiter returned with our entrees.

Barbara kept things simple by ordering an entree-sized version of the restaurant’s shrimp cocktail. Typically it’s served in the standard shrimp cocktail bowl, but she asked for it laid out on a plate without the cocktail sauce. I didn’t try any, but she seemed to like it.

I went for the cheeseburger, which might seem unusual in a French restaurant that has many great dishes to offer, including an excellent steak frites. But I had heard several people talk up the burger as something out of the ordinary, so finally it was time to try it.

I wasn’t disappointed. The beef patty is made of fresh, succulent meat and cooked with the perfect amount of crisp on the outside but tender on the inside. That’s topped with thin strings of crunchy onion, and slathered in a somewhat sweet, amazing sauce. Combined with a hefty portion of the restaurant’s aforementioned wonderful fries this is a great dish.

“And don’t you just love the little flags?” said Barbara, smiling at the miniature United States and French flags planted on the top of the burger.

The burger was so tempting I just attacked it by holding it with my hands rather than a dainty attempt to cut it up with a knife and fork. While I made my way through the mountain of carbohydrates, Barbara explained why Everest is off her list of must-do summits.

“My kids won’t let me, they’re sure I’d die,” she said. “And I don’t want to do it anyway, because it’s three months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it,” she added.

Despite not planning an Everest trip, Barbara doesn’t appear to struggle for things to do with her time. In addition to her fundraising and travels she also operates an interior design business from home. It’s a casual affair and one she fits around her other obligations, but she said she enjoys it.

“I like to think I have decent taste, and I can adapt to whatever people want. I’m very fast, very efficient. But I don’t depend on it for my living,” she said.

Based on one meal with Barbara I concluded that the only thing she depends on for living is keeping busy, always being on the move. She had celebrated her 62nd birthday just days before we met, and she smiled as she said, “I keep getting younger.”

“I have a high energy level, and I like new things. You get bad things in your life, but I don’t dwell on that. I look for good things,” Barbara said. “And I’m always busy. Could you imagine not doing something or not thinking about something all of the time?”

That’s something I can’t imagine about Barbara Crocker.

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