Reporters and other citizens now rely on Richmond Sunlight which Waldo created in 2007.
You can add "chicken farmer" to his list of titles.
Where's Waldo? It's a clichéd question to ask about a man by that name, but in the case of Waldo Jaquith– who so resembles the famous find-the-character cartoon that he changed his first name to match– it's irresistible.
Hey! There's Waldo in court as a teenager, launching a lawsuit against local government! Look, he's on the red carpet at the My VH1 Music Awards! What's he doing all by himself on the Appalachian Trail at age 17? Psst. Turn on the TV and there's Waldo on the Today show talking about workplace bullying! And wait a minute, isn't that Waldo popping up at the White House just a few weeks ago?
Indeed, for a guy who claims he abhors the spotlight, it's eerie how he keeps stumbling– haplessly, he insists– into the national media glare. His most recent honor? A $165,000 national journalism grant to make the Virginia State Code more accessible.
"I figured I had a 1 in 100 chance of winning," says Jaquith, sitting in a stately conference room in UVA's Miller Center, the political thinktank where he's worked as a web developer since leaving the Virginia Quarterly Review following the July 2010 suicide of its managing editor and the ensuing high profile controversy over workplace bullying that brought Today to Charlottesville.
Shaking his head with a smile and a look of wide-eyed wonder, the no-longer bespectacled Jaquith– once dubbed enfant terrible by local media during his teenaged legal battles but now a married man standing 6'4" with distinguished streaks of gray in his hair– seems genuinely mystified at this recent honor, in which his project was one of only 16 chosen from more than 1,600 entries.
"I've never had anyone say to me, 'I saw the most interesting thing in the state code,' he laughs. "Nobody cares about state codes."
Apparently, the folks at the Miami, Florida-based Knight Foundation do care, and in late June– the same month the now 33-year-old programmer was invited to the White House as a "Champion of Change" for his work making government accessible online through his state legislature interpreting website richmondsunlight.com– the journalism-promoting nonprofit named him a winner of its 2011 Knight News Challenge contest.
"He articulates such an optimistic vision, and that personality is coupled with very serious and well-vetted technical chops," says John Bracken, Knight's director of media innovation. "He told us he was going to do it one way or another, and that determination and passion we saw with Waldo really brought home to us that this was an investment we thought would have an impact not just in Virginia but across the country."
Determination and passion are nothing new for Jaquith, as anyone who's followed his many endeavors already knows. There was the lawsuit that, as a teenager, he filed against the city of Charlottesville claiming its curfew was unconstitutional, his attempt at age 17 to thru-hike the AT alone, his twenty-something run for Charlottesville City Council, and his work on websites covering topics from local news to state legislation to Dave Matthews Band. Indeed, trying to guess just where Waldo might pop up next in the news might be considered a fool's errand. Even his own mother's stopped trying.
"I had no idea he'd applied for the Knight," says Janis Jaquith, an essayist and frequent Hook contributor who, along with husband Harry Landers, got the nontraditional ball rolling early for their three children, giving Jaquith and his twin brother, nationally acclaimed hunter-locavore Jackson Landers, different last names– one for each parent.
"I thought, 'Hot dog'," says Janis. "We each get one."
When the twins were almost two in 1980, their mother discovered How to Teach Your Baby to Read, the 1965 classic that claims that even infants can decipher text.
"I wrote 15 words in red magic marker they couldn't even say, and flashed the cards at them," Janis recalls. "The next day, no matter which order they were in, Waldo knew every single word."
By two and a half, she says, both Waldo and his brother were reading fluently– but Janis doesn't believe her children were savants.
"It's not that they're fabulously brilliant," she says, noting that her youngest daughter, Jill Jaquith, learned to read even earlier (at just seven months old).
"They just had a crazy mother," she laughs.
"Crazy," if that's what one wants to call the Jaquith-Landers clan, didn't necessarily work well for Jaquith at Western Albemarle High School, where he enrolled in ninth grade after the family relocated from Maryland to Free Union in 1992.
"There's the problem– among smart kids who come by their smarts genetically– that when presented with actual challenges, they have no idea what to do," says Jaquith, noting that he'd never needed to do homework while enrolled in a gifted and talented program in Maryland that allowed self-directed study. At Western, he recalls, "I needed to study, and I didn't know how to do that."
A year later, an unhappy Jaquith transferred to the now defunct Living Education Center for Ecology and the Arts, a homeschooling consortium located a block north of the Downtown Mall that enabled its high school-aged students to pursue their own interests and take classes at PVCC.
The flexible schedule afforded by the school– and by his parents– suited Waldo, but a city government-imposed curfew requiring youths 17 and under to be inside by midnight on weeknights and by 1am on weekends vexed him.
"I think it's both racist and classist," says Jaquith, who maintained in an ultimately failed lawsuit (and still contends) that the curfew unfairly punishes poor minorities while wealthier white kids roam free and unharassed.
"This curfew law has prevented me from socializing with my friends," the then-18-year-old said in court at the time, according to a contemporary news report. "I have enjoyed playing chess under a street lamp on many a midsummer's night. I have had midnight picnics at a fountain, and during the blizzard last year, we played in the snow till two or three am— it was a winter wonderland."
Janis Jaquith says her son– who was named David at birth, but officially made his first name Waldo after he was nicknamed by friends– was the type of kid who didn't need a curfew. In fact, she says, he was the only one of her three children to collect the $1,000 she and their father offered if they made it to age 21 without trying alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes.
His responsible nature, she says, was what convinced her that he could handle hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine on his own a year before his 1997 high school graduation.
"He wasn't the kind of kid you'd say no to because he's so reasonable," she says. "If he wants to do something, get out of the way. He will have thought it through."
Still, she admits the worry was constant, particularly as he called periodically to report stress fractures in both feet. "He said, I don't want to be rescued– I want to finish. But his foot was broken." (Having broken his feet eight times, he eventually ended the hike without completing the stretch through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. "Someday," he says, "I'll do the last section.")
Back home after the hike, Jaquith finished high school, then worked as a graphic designer and computer programmer and, in 1998, launched the Dave Matthews Band fan website nancies.org, named for the song "Dancing Nancies."
It wasn't long before kudos arrived as the site won top fansite honors from VH1 in 2000 and 2001, and Jaquith and site co-founder John Athayde were flown first-class to L.A. to attend the My VH1 Music Awards. Walking the red carpet the first year, Jaquith recalls, was humbling, particularly after the limo driver who'd delivered him from the airport gave him a pep talk.
"He said, 'Walk down like you mean it, like you own it. Smile, act like a celebrity.'" The paparazzi, however, weren't so easily fooled. Attendees included Mick Jagger, u2, Sting, Ellen DeGeneres, and Christina Aguilera. And Waldo.
"Every photographer put down their camera," he laughs. "I felt like such a jerk."
That same year, Jaquith was back in court, and this time victorious in a battle against toy manufacturer Mattel over a web filtering tool he demonstrated as amounting to censorship. By 2002, Jaquith was ready for something new– something political.
"I knew that I had the time at that point in my life to dedicate to a 20-hour a week job," he says of his ultimately unsuccessful run for City Council. "I'd been to so many meetings over the past eight years and lived downtown and owned a business downtown that I felt I could offer a perspective and energy."
Then 23, Jaquith came within four votes of getting nominated before losing to older candidates, one of whom lost the general election despite the backing of the Democratic machine, but he expresses no lingering anger.
"I had ideas," he says, "but it's a popularity contest."
If his progressive politics have helped popularize him with many, they've horrified others.
"He once said 'Tax me 'til I bleed' asking City Council to raise taxes,'" says conservative radio talk show host and former Republican City Councilor Rob Schilling. "He said it on mic."
Computer programmer and Tea Partier Tom McCrystal remembers that same public comment with a proverbial shudder, but Jaquith laughs it off.
"It was a tongue-in-cheek comment, in the context of a couple of minutes of remarks that I once made at a town hall meeting many years ago," he says, noting he was still in high school. "I was attending it as part of a class field trip, I recall."
Even if both men are disturbed by Jaquith's admittedly liberal ideology, they're fans of the work he's done on the nonpartisan richmondsunlight.com. There, the progress, the history, and the background of Virginia bills are tracked and made searchable.
"I like that and use it for reference," says Schilling, adding that he's eager to see what Jaquith can do with the state code. "Those are definitely worthy endeavors," says Schilling. "I appreciate him for that."
And McCrystal says Jaquith's personal traits are admirable.
"One of the great things about him is that despite his inherent liberalism, he does try to give people the benefit of the doubt," says McCrystal. "He's one of those rational people you can have a conversation with despite fundamental disagreements of philosophy."
If Jaquith is even tempered, he doesn't shy from controversy, as he proved again in 2009 when he used the VQR blog to publicly call out Wired magazine editor and best-selling author Chris Anderson for plagiarizing large sections of text from Wikipedia in a newly released book. Even in that situation, however, he resisted personal criticism.
"The really good news here," wrote Jaquith on the blog, "is that a wide-ranging, interesting, valuable discussion is taking place across the internet about what plagiarism is, about Wikipedia's role in the dissemination of facts, and about the thesis of Anderson's book."
His rationality and responsibility may have won him friends and success in many areas– including a lively following on his local news aggregator, cvillenews.com. But when he applied to college after high school graduation, he found his first choice school, UVA, wouldn't have him. Despite having an A average in his PVCC classes, three times between 1997 and 2002 he applied to UVA and was rejected.
"I was pissed at UVA; he was not," recalls mom Janis. "He'd say, 'They get to decide who's going to go there and who's not.' He took it all in stride. He thought it was kind of funny, I think."
Even funnier, perhaps, was an offhand comment made by then-UVA president John Casteen during an e-summit at the Carr's Hill residence in 1999.
"He introduced me as 'one of our best students,'" laughs Jaquith, who– as with his failed council bid– says he held no bitterness when he gave up on UVA and headed to Blacksburg in 2003 to complete his degree in political science with a concentration in law at Virginia Tech. But if he attended a traditional school for a traditional degree, he'd put it to nontraditional use– including the use that's now winning him acclaim... and cash.
"State codes, for humans," is the humorous tagline on the new site, statedecoded.com– a URL that suggests the inscrutable nature of laws as written.
Writing in an introduction on the new site, Jaquith calls codes "wretched" and "stunningly difficult" to understand, and anyone who's used the current state-run website might agree. With the funding from Knight, Jaquith hopes to change all that by linking related court cases to the codes they're based on and tracing the history of each law to give the average citizen the ability to understand when, where, and why each law was enacted. The money from Knight– $165,000– will be funneled through the nonprofit Miller Center, allowing him to stay on as an employee with benefits.
The Knight Foundation's Bracken notes that the Miller Center's eagerness to keep Jaquith on staff– even though his hours will be limited– is testament to his character, and he believes Jaquith's past successes bode well for the new state code site.
"The fact that he's got so many years of experience already is something that makes us think that the end results have a good chance of being useful and relevant to people," says Bracken, noting that while the contest is being reworked this year, it's possible for previous winners to receive further funding.
"In general, the idea is to fund new initiatives and projects," he says, "and whether those ideas come from people we've worked with in the past or not, doesn't matter too much."
Even if there's a possibility of further funds from Knight or some other source to extend the state code project past the expected 18 months, Jaquith– who hopes to create code-searching sites for a dozen states during the grant period– says he won't be doing it forever.
"My hope," he says, "is that the project will be big enough that I can then step back and it can continue." And, he notes, another idea is already percolating: making a similar website dedicated to courts and court decisions.
"What I enjoy is the things I don't know how to do," he muses. "Once I've solved the problem, I'm done."
For everyone else, however, that's when the real life version of "Where's Waldo" begins again.
Correction: In the print edition of this story, the last name of Waldo's sister, Jill, was given as Landers when it's actually Jaquith. This digital archive has been thusly corrected. Also corrected: the Wired editor Waldo called out for plagiarism is Chris Anderson.