Aaron DeNu ’01 directs Washington D.C.’s Dupont Festival
As Aaron DeNu walked through Washington D.C.’s historic Dupont Circle Park shortly after moving to the Nation’s Capital in 2007, he paid little attention to the couples strolling under the canopy of trees that permeate the two acres, nor the woman eating her lunch on a bench near the fountain, the man walking his border collie or even the teens performing impressive tricks on skateboards.
Rather, he envisioned thousands of Washingtonians’ eyes fixed upon giant video screens, cheering as they watched the USA play in the greatest sports spectacle on Earth, the World Cup soccer championships.
Since 1882, the park has always been a gathering place for Washingtonians and he saw himself as one who could raise the stakes and enhance the area’s identity as a cross-cultural meeting place with shared activities as diverse as the city itself. In the words of one of the film buff’s favorite movies, “If you build it, they will come.”
“From the beginning, I was drawn to the setting of it, a beautiful tree-lined park in Washington D.C. I explored all the parks and learned Dupont is at the heart of where Washingtonians hang out,” said DeNu, a 2001 Wilmington College graduate who earned his master’s degree from Fordham University and left New York City to take a position in D.C. at George Washington University. He arrived determined to take in all the Nation’s Capital had to offer.
“Those first years, I felt like I went to every public event in the city,” he said, noting he became intrigued with Dupont Circle Park, which was only seven blocks from his apartment. His research revealed the park sits at a crossroads of three major thoroughfares and its denizens are representative of D.C.’s tossed salad of nationalities, ethnicities, backgrounds and personal identities.
Also, 100 years ago, big bands played at the park and, since the 1960s, the area has been a popular location for demonstrations and vigils. However, in recent decades, “There was zero programming,” he said. DeNu, a soccer player at WC and aficionado of the game, came up with the idea of a community viewing similar to what is popular in fútbol-crazed nations like Germany.
“With the 2010 men’s World Cup in South Africa approaching, and the USA and England playing an opening match, I started down the alley of how I could put on a World Cup viewing festival,” he recalled, adding that he quickly learned it would involve much more than simply bringing in a big-screen TV.
Dupont Circle is technically a National Park so a federal permit was required; also one was needed to cover the adjacent proximity under the jurisdiction of Metropolitan Police and the Dept. of Transportation. Washington D.C. Council and Commissioners needed to give their blessings and broadcast rights were essential from both ESPN and FIFA, international soccer’s governing body.
Throw in the video screens, a sound system, generators, private security, restrooms, cleanup crews and a host of other logistical necessities, and the estimated cost soon totaled $30,000 — and Dupont Circle Park had no programming budget.
Undeterred, DeNu began fundraising and assembling a team of volunteers. The former U.S. secretary-of-state, Henry Kissinger, offered a gift and approval to use his name. The Brazilian Sugar Cane Growers Assn. gave $10,000 and, with publicity from the Washington Post, enough donations came in to make the first-ever, large-scale, permit event at the park a reality.
On a warm Saturday in June 2010, some 20,000 Washingtonians joined together in peaceful community to enjoy three opening matches of the World Cup, highlighted by the USA playing England to a 1-1 draw.
DeNu’s work with the South African Embassy represented his initial foray into interacting with foreign governments. He has since worked directly with embassies of Germany, Ireland, France, Sweden and Finland.
“The international connection is one of the cool things about working for Dupont,” he said. “Almost all our projects involve the international community.”
The smashing success of the World Cup viewing got the ball rolling and established DeNu’s credibility as a mover and shaker in D.C. With the blessing of the neighborhood and National Park Service, he formed a five-person, Dupont Festival governing board that led to it becoming a sub-entity of Main Street Dupont Circle, giving him an office at the park and gaining non-profit status, which has stretched the impact of the more than $175,000 raised since 2010.
Programing under the auspices of Dupont Festival became as diverse as the city. “Instead of stopping after the World Cup, the idea was to tie events to four seasons,” he said.
Events have run the gamut from celebrating an “unflinching prognosticating” marmot to the highbrow Bard of Avon. Indeed, Dupont Festival has featured Shakespeare-in-the-Park, Knitting-in-the-Park, the Washington Ballet’s version of a flash mob, widespread chess playing, a Pope-in-the-Park viewing of Pope Francis’ American visit and the ever-popular Cinema-in-the-Park.
A lover of movies, DeNu devised the idea of showing classic films on temperate evenings when persons could bring a blanket or beach chair and watch E.T., Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon or Raiders of the Lost Ark — all movies that are part of the National Film Registry.
He promoted Back to the Future by positioning a DeLorean at the park against a backdrop playing of the film’s theme song, “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & the News.
Regarding the marmot, DeNu wanted a winter event and always enjoyed the folklore that surrounds Groundhog Day, so, as a complement to Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil, he devised a Feb. 2 morning program employing a stuffed groundhog, Potomac Phil, complete with polka dancers, a puppet show, groundhog readings and even a rabbi’s blessing.
“Of course our groundhog also makes political predictions,” he said, noting it is Washington D.C. after all. “The community gets a real kick out of it.” Also, several years ago, The Huffington Post closely followed DeNu’s un-RSVP’d invitation for actor Bill Murray, star of the 1993 fantasy drama, Groundhog Day, to be part of the festivities.
The World Cup viewings have remained popular. In fact, Dupont Festival partnered with the German Embassy to show the USA-Germany match in 2014. It resulted in the festival’s most popular event to date, as 30,000 attended the Germans’ 1-0 victory. He followed that with the women’s World Cup in 2015 featuring the USA vs. Sweden in a scoreless tie.
Other events have included the U.S. Air Force Jazz Band, an Irish Music Festival and, on this year’s summer solstice, Fete de la Musique de I’Alliance Francaise de Washington D.C., a cultural appreciation event programmed by the French Embassy.
“The European Union approached me for Dupont Festival to be their partner for programming in public space in Washington D.C.,” DeNu said. “This is an effective type of cultural diplomacy and nation branding by portraying a positive relationship with the American public.”
DeNu’s voluntary efforts on behalf of Dupont Festival have garnered him significant accolades, as the D.C. Commissioners recognized him for “his outstanding work in building a better community” and the White House presented him with the President’s Volunteer Service Award.
Those efforts also resulted in a job. After serving at George Washington University for seven years as associate director of technology outreach and events, he was named in 2014 as executive director of the Mid-City Business District, a Chamber of Commerce-like position in which he promoted the popular U Street corridor of businesses.
“They recruited me because of the success I have had at Dupont,” he said.
DeNu resigned from that position in July after Cincinnati-based Tier One hired him to be their representative in Washington. He is no stranger to Tier One, a consulting firm that works in business development through advising change management toward more technology-driven models. It marks the third time the firm has employed DeNu. After graduating from WC in 2001, he became the College’s Webmaster before, in 2003, joining the fledging Tier One as its fourth employee (he’s now its 161st). He left after two years to pursue his master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at Fordham. His thesis was titled “Interface Technologies and Anthropology.”
Upon receiving his advanced degree, which included taking a course at Harvard University, Tier One hired him to be their face in New York City. He traveled the country presenting seminars, one of which was held in Washington D.C., a city he thoroughly enjoyed visiting. He subsequently pursued a newly created position at George Washington and moved there in 2007.
His first week in the city, DeNu met his future wife in their apartment elevator. Lauren is employed by global broadcasting giant Discovery Communications and is working on her MBA. They were married in 2012 in the historic Dumbarton House in Georgetown, the location to which First Lady Dolly Madison fled the White House as the British marched into the nation’s new capital during the War of 1812.
One of Washington’s greatest attractions to DeNu is its history — be it as formally presented as at the Smithsonian museums or as informally as the buried artifacts discovered, in the DeNus’ backyard, that date back to the British plundering of D.C. in 1814. It is something for which he gained an enhanced appreciation when he studied under WC professors Edward Agran and Vinny Prince while double majoring in history and computer science.
As DeNu has attained success in his careers and acclaim through his work with the Dupont Festival, his Wilmington College roots remain close.
“I think Wilmington College is all about one-on-one, face-to-face encounters,” he said. “I’ve never seen such personal relationships anywhere else — and that’s never left me. I can’t imagine having gone anywhere else as an undergrad.
“My Wilmington College experience is such a huge part of who I am.”