John Anderson proves you can go home again — in style
His home, Jessamine Hill, is grand setting for May 7 benefit
“I bought this place to share with others, to give something back to the county. I was born and raised here. After my family, I love this county best,” said John Anderson, explaining why Jessamine Hill, his elegant brick manor house nearly two centuries old and beautifully restored, is the setting for the Rappahannock Food Pantry’s annual benefit dinner on May 7.
Anderson could be a hero who stepped from the pages of an Horatio Alger story. “I grew up poor in Rappahannock County. No one expected this,” he acknowledged. The Anderson home place was at the foot of Mt. Marshall, his father was a farmer, his mother took in laundry, and the six Anderson children started working alongside their parents before they started school. Judged by today’s standards or even by the signs of the time, it was a hard life, but measured by intangibles, it was rich and full. Take John’s childhood memory of accompanying his dad to harvest the
dead chestnut trees on Mt. Marshall and haul the logs to Luray. For him, the vivid recollection is not the labor, but rather trying to beat the train on the trip out of town. “Now, who can say they’ve raced a steam locomotive?” he asked, smiling broadly.
John left Rappahannock in 1964 after high school graduation for a Grade 2 clerk typist job with the U.S. government. He earned a degree from an accounting school and took night classes from the University of Virginia extension and George Mason University to add a business degree, as he climbed the general services ladder, reaching grade GS 15. Then in early 1980, he was recruited by A.T. Kearney, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious management consultant companies. At the interview, while he was still considering other prospects, he thought fast when an unexpected offer was presented, and he conditioned his acceptance on bringing with him two hand-picked subordinates.
It was an inspired move. John bombed on the company’s famously difficult employment test. (Career review sites rank A.T. Kearney’s interview process the most challenging of major firms.) But one of his compatriots posted the highest score ever and the other was in the top 10 percent of would-be hires. Recognizing potential, the CEO averaged the three scores to give John a passing grade. “Everybody who works with me or for me is six times smarter than me,” John joked.
That was 36 years ago, and Anderson is now the longest tenured partner – “the last man standing” – in the 90-yearold consulting company. Originally a specialist in transportation and logistics, he grew with the firm. While A.T. Kearney expanded from four offices in the U.S. to 60 offices in 40 countries, he worked — and learned — in the industries that power the world’s economic engines: aerospace and defense, automotive, communications media and technology, chemicals, healthcare, mining and metals, oil and gas, consumer products and retail, infrastructure and utilities and more.
“I had the ability to connect the dots,” Anderson said, describing himself as a “business psychiatrist,” whose job it is to convince industry and government that A.T. Kearney can help them do great things, and then motivate them to action and lead them to believing that it’s as much their idea as the consulting firm’s. The keys to his success? “Passion, persistence, patience and a work ethic,” he says. “I was in the right place at the right time, and I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of things in my life. I’m an average person who worked very hard, and I had phenomenal mentors,” he stressed repeatedly. “Work was my great passion. Work and this place, Jessamine Hill.”
Over the decades, John returned regularly to Rappahannock to visit his parents and his sister Alice. “On the ride from Warrenton, my blood pressure would drop 20 points.” Loving “the beauty and the wonderful people” of the county, he determined to have a home here again.
He found Jessamine Hill. “It’s been an adventure and a journey to restore this place.” A big adventure, considering that Anderson fell through the rotten front steps on his first visit, and a long journey, considering recovery took 16 years.
Built between 1825 and 1830 by James Leake Powers, a protégé of Thomas Jefferson who also constructed Trinity Episcopal Church, the courthouse, the clerk’s office and the town hall in Washington, Jessamine Hill was originally the home of Thomas Fletcher and his wife, Susan Stack Fletcher. Atop a knoll in Tiger Valley, the grand manor house commands a breathtaking view, with formal gardens giving way to rolling pastures against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge. But in 1998, it was a near wreck — house, grounds and outbuildings. “The cheapest part was buying it,” Anderson said. “I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
So just as in his professional life, he found experts whom he could trust to help. “I discovered the wonderful Ray Coffey from Castleton. He’s been the savior of this house in terms of all the work he did. He’s worked regularly on this place for 16 years.” And he built the awesome kitchen that is every cook’s dream – “the best thing about the house,” according to Anderson. “I found a wonderful painter and plasterer, George Peyton. A wonderful brick and stone mason, Glenn Burke.” The other all-stars on the Jessamine Hill team are Anderson’s sister, Alice, and his second cousin, George Jenkins. Jenkins is the farm’s manager and handyman. Alice is Jessamine’s caretaker in her brother’s absence, and both restored and now maintain the grounds and gardens.
And for 18 years, Anderson has been project manager, general contractor and sometimes weekend laborer. He hauled away rubbish. He pruned bushes and trees. He mowed. He cut down the dead and dying giant elms that lined the nearly one-mile driveway. On occasion, he even swung a hammer.
And between management consulting with A.T. Kearney and general contracting at Jessamine Hill, Anderson began furnishing the manor house, starting with a Louis XIV clock found in a Parisian market. He combined business trips with shopping expeditions. “I traveled every day. I could leave the office a half hour before the plane was scheduled to depart. Can’t do that now.”
But after he met Kathleen Robertson in 2003, and they joined forces, the design of Jessamine’s interior took off. John credits Kathleen with creating “the look” of the manor house. She picked out most of the furnishings and then proved her facility with interior decorating by selecting all the downstairs draperies in a single afternoon and the paint colors, room by room, in a day.
The result is a house museum with a welcoming, comfortable feeling. There’s a sweeping central staircase, seven fireplaces with Greek Revival mantelpieces, a formal dining room under the eyes of Thomas Fletcher in portrait, wall tapestries and a hutch filled with Waterford crystal and blue and white willow. The former ballroom has been transformed into an inviting family room with an English mahogany game table covered in needlepoint and petit point. Antique furniture, Turkish rugs, porcelains, etchings and paintings are everywhere.
Cosmic road signs affirm that Anderson made the right choice with Jessamine Hill. The vista from the front porch perfectly frames The Peak, as Mt. Marshall was known in his childhood. And in the early days of restoration, when he was clearing the Fletcher family graveyard, he found the headstone of John Kinsey Fletcher, the man he’s named after. “When I die, this John Kinsey is going in right behind the first John Kinsey.”
Meanwhile, John and Kathleen take pride and pleasure in opening their home for his favorite community causes, including the Rappahannock Historical Society, Trinity Episcopal Church and the Rappahannock Food Pantry. The pantry’s benefit dinner on May 7 is the second time they have been host for the annual fundraiser, and John has a wish for this year’s gala. “This is really, really important to me. I would love to see more people born and raised in Rappahannock County at this wonderful event.”
And he repeated his reasons for acquiring and restoring Jessamine Hill: “Because I could, because I love the county and because I want to share this place with others.”
Native son John Anderson
Jessamine Hill was originally the home of Thomas Fletcher, whose portrait still watches over the formal dining room.