By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
It likely comes as no surprise that Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson met his wife, Alex Crawford-Batt, at a state Democratic convention while they both were in college.
They married three-and-a-half years later, just four days after the 9/11 attacks. Politics and unexpected adversity would be a recurring theme for the couple.
In March 1998, Justin was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, while Alex attended the College of William & Mary. The first-year students were attending a Virginia Young Democrats convention in Richmond.
“We had a friend of ours who was a classmate of mine at VCU,” Justin said.
“Who I became friends with at the convention,” Alex added.
The friend decided to introduce the pair, thinking they might hit it off. They did, and a few months later, Alex was in Richmond for a meeting and she and Justin met for coffee.
“… I guess that was sort of our first official date, at a scuzzy diner in Richmond,” Alex laughed. “We had a lot of weird coincidences, because we both grew up in [Northern Virginia] and knew a lot of the same people at the same time but in different circles. There were a lot of parallels.”
A lot in common
One significant parallel was a connection to U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, who was Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia while they were in high school.
“I think our biggest commonality was that she babysat for Don Beyer growing up,” Justin said.
“I babysat for his kids, while he was lieutenant governor,” Alex interjected.
“And I was his page in the Virginia Senate,” Justin continued.
“At one time, I remember [Beyer’s] wife saying, ‘Oh, you should meet his page some time. He’s really cute,’” Alex said.
“It was one of the things we had in common and we were able to talk about it in the beginning,” Justin said.
They also had places with significance to their families in common. Justin had grown up mostly in Springfield and Alex on Duke Street in Alexandria. Both families loved Duck Chang’s, Chesapeake Bay Seafood House and other Northern Virginia institutions.
“The hushpuppies,” Justin said. “I miss the hushpuppies.”
Another connection is that Justin lived with his parents in the same apartment building where good friends of Alex’s parents lived. Alex said she visited the building frequently as a child.
“We were crossing paths there,” Justin said.
Both Justin and Alex had been interested in politics from a young age.
“I’ve been working in politics probably since I was 10, working in polls and on campaigns,” Justin said. “Ironically enough, both of my parents were federal employees and so that was back in the old days of the Hatch Act when it was a lot stricter. When my dad left the government, he got a little bit involved, and he brought me to a few things early on and that’s what got me involved.”
Alex became active in politics during high school.
“I was in T.C. Teen Dems at the time, and so I continued that in college with the Young Dems,” she said. “The irony is now that I work for the federal government, I don’t do anything political.”
Their political beginning and background helped Alex adjust when Justin was elected to Alexandria’s city council at age 28. Prior to running for council, Justin had been involved with the Del Ray Civic Association and the DASH board.
“It’s not like the campaign came out of the blue, or it wasn’t like a sudden thing that he was suddenly gone in the evenings,” Alex said. “It was kind of a transition that was sort of expected given that he’d already been so involved at that point. … I can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started dating him, [because] we met in a political environment.”
Quickly a couple
A few weeks after the date at the Richmond dive, Justin came up to Northern Virginia, and they went out to dinner in Old Town, though neither could remember where they went.
“I don’t think it’s a place that still exists, but I don’t remember,” Alex said.
When school started back up for their sophomore years, they spent most weekends together.
“He had an apartment and I had a … dorm roommate, so I usually ended up going to Richmond,” Alex said. “The Williamsburg weekend scene was not the most exciting if you weren’t involved in the Greek sorority scene, so I usually ended up taking the Greyhound Bus or Amtrak to Richmond for the weekend. There was a lot more to do.”
Justin’s studio apartment was just off campus at the base of The Fan, a lively neighborhood in Richmond centered on the VCU campus.
“[It was] in The Fan when it was on the edge of being cool,” Alex said.
“I was next to Monroe Park,” Justin said. “At the time, it wasn’t such a great place. I was just down there recently and was marveling at how Monroe Park is just this beautiful, amazing space now. It was not that way. The mid-90s it was more of an open-air drug market.”
Alex graduated a semester early, in Dec. 2000, but Justin had already left school that May, at the end of his junior year.
“I had a job offer to come back up here,” Justin said. “So I worked out a deal with the school of business where I took my last 12 credits at George Mason and transferred them back. So I ended up officially graduating from VCU in August of ’01.”
Wilson went to George Mason at night to finish up his degree in business information systems, while working at Qwest Communications during the day.
“My mom would have hunted me down and beat me if I didn’t finish my degree,” Justin said, laughing.
Meanwhile, Alex immediately started working for the federal government after receiving her degree in international relations from William & Mary. She later did a part-time master’s program through her job.
“I graduated in December, had Christmas with the family and then started working in January,” she said. “I work for the Department of Defense. I’m an analyst at DIA.”
While neither remembers one particular “aha” moment, Alex and Justin were aware early on that they were very compatible.
“We both realized we would not be able to outnerd each other,” Alex said. “We generally have very different geeky interests, but there’s definitely overlap when it comes to some of the policy.”
“Honestly, we have some pretty geeky conversations, and we always have,” Justin said. “She’s literally in the weeds on issues – she’s a big gardener now.”
They got engaged in Alexandria in December 2000, the weekend before Alex’s finals at William & Mary.
“We were living in a townhouse in Fairfax. I got a limo for the night – she still thinks it was a ridiculous purchase,” Justin said.
“They took us on a tour of all the Christmas lights in D.C.,” Alex said.
“So we went to the national Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas pops concert. … We ate somewhere in D.C., came back to the Embassy Suites in Old Town and that’s where I proposed. She didn’t know what we were doing for the night,” Justin said.
“I’d checked in in the afternoon and come back home,” he said. “Honestly, I was looking for a Metro-accessible hotel because at the time the townhouse we lived in was right next to the Franconia-Springfield Metro and so I was like, ‘Where could we go for the night so that we could get back in the morning?’ So I had pre-staged everything at the hotel and I proposed there and we went home the next morning on the Metro.”
A memorable wedding
The date they picked for their wedding was Sept. 15, 2001.
“I was supposed to start a job at the Pentagon on Sept. 10, but luckily I had asked to postpone until after the wedding and took a training class instead,” Alex said. “So, that worked out. It [9/11] definitely made for interesting wedding logistics.”
Alex said the experience of scrambling to still hold the wedding in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks gave her a better perspective.
“When friends get married and freak out about minor details, I just shake my head and say, ‘You know what, it’s all going to happen and if you have friends and family there, then the color of your flowers really doesn’t matter,’” Alex said.
Some people weren’t able to attend their wedding because of the disruption from the attacks, while others who had thought they’d have to miss the ceremony because of other travel were unexpectedly available.
“We kept getting calls because my parents knew I was supposed to start a Pentagon job. … They got a couple of calls from close family members saying, ‘Is Alex OK? And we can’t come to the wedding because everything’s cancelled,’” Alex said. “Fortunately, the venue [in Clifton, Virginia] was really flexible with us and said, ‘Whoever comes, comes and we’ll work out the numbers later.’”
Some friends and family members made extraordinary efforts to get to the wedding.
“We had the best man trapped in San Francisco and the maid of honor trapped in Minneapolis,” Alex said. “A God-sister driving across the country from Tucson with her cat in her pickup truck. Just all kinds of crazy stories. Your aunt and uncle had a tree on their house with the hurricane and then drove up with your grandmother and had to pick up your cousin at college – all in a minivan together.”
The maid of honor barely made it.
“Her maid of honor landed at Dulles, because we got married in Clifton. She landed at 11 and the wedding was like at noon,” Justin said.
“She got dressed in the back seat of her friend’s station wagon and then comes running across the field as soon as we finished doing the group pictures almost like slow motion out of a movie, [yelling] ‘I made it. I made it!’ I was like, ‘Wait, get another picture with her,’” Alex said.
“If you look at the pictures, [the best man] is completely bleary-eyed because he had literally driven through the night from Atlanta in a rental car,” Justin said.
“You know who loves you [when they go to those lengths],” Alex said.
The uncertainty about who was going to show up lasted right until the wedding started.
“There were a few folks that his mom worked with and she wasn’t sure if they were OK until they showed up at the wedding,” Alex said.
“It was an interesting time to get started,” Justin said.
A toast by Don Beyer at the reception was a special part of the wedding.
“Don was there and that was good,” Justin said. “He kind of brought it all together.”
Justin said many people asked him during the week after 9/11 if the wedding was going to take place.
“I was like, ‘Of course we’re going to go forward.’ Why would you cancel a wedding?” Justin said.
“Everyone was glad to see each other and everyone needed to be with friends and family I think at that time,” Alex said.
“It was the happiest thing anybody did that week for sure,” Justin said. “The weather was perfect. It was one of those things that everything that we were worried about was fine. Everything that we never could have imagined, happened.”
They were able to depart from Dulles the next morning for their honeymoon in Aruba, which was unexpectedly deserted.
“ … Aruba had just gotten all the people who had been stranded there off the island and then so many people cancelled and there weren’t many people there,” Justin said. “So we’d go into these restaurants and they’d be so happy to see us. … It was a little sobering, because the hotel had New York local TV for whatever reason, so we’re just sitting there in the hotel watching the local New York affiliate.”
“You didn’t want to watch, but you couldn’t not watch,” Alex said.
They bought a townhouse in Del Ray in April of 2001, just a few months prior to the wedding.
“She made it clear we were coming to Alexandria,” Justin laughed.
Their first child, Eli, was born in Dec. 2004. The delivery was slow, and everything went without a hitch. Alex was pregnant with their second child during Justin’s campaign for and victory in the special election for a city council seat in 2007.
A few months later, they experienced what Alex called “another chaotic, yet joyous occasion:” the birth of daughter Lena.
“… I kept saying, ‘I think we need to go. I think we need to go [to the hospital].’ I don’t think he realized I really meant, ‘We need to GO,’” Alex said.
“So, he called my mom very calmly to come over and watch our 3-year-old, Eli, and she shows up with no sense of urgency since he made it sound like we had all the time in the world,” Alex said. “And then we were leaving the house and I said, ‘I don’t think we’re going to make it.’ And you said, ‘Don’t worry we’ll make it.’ And we got in the car. And I said, ‘We’re not going to make it.’ And you said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make it.’ And I said, ‘No, we didn’t make it – she’s here.’”
At that point, Alex calmed down because Lena was crying and seemed fine, but Justin was the one who got excited once he realized the baby had been born. He called 911 and was told to pull over, but they were in possibly the busiest intersection in Alexandria – where Braddock, Quaker and King streets come together – in the middle of morning rush hour.
“One of the medics was the father of five or seven and he knew the drill,” Justin said. “It was quite a morning: Oct. 15, 2007.”