WASHINGTON - It is 6:15 a.m. when Jay McGinley begins his work on the edge of Lafayette Park in a homemade tent made of white plastic.

He is dressed, as always, in jeans and a windbreaker, protection against the often harsh weather while he holds his lonely vigil in front of the White House.

For a moment in January, it looked as though a 28-year, nonstop peace protest across Pennsylvania Avenue might come to an end with the death of William Thomas, its activist cofounder.

Then McGinley, formerly of West Goshen, Chester County, stepped in and took Thomas' place in a grueling rotation devised to outfox the U.S. Park Police, who would tear down the tent and remove the protest site if it ever went unmanned, even for a moment.

McGinley and his partner, Concepcion Picciotto, the vigil's other cofounder, cannot leave at the same time or sleep while on duty, lest they be cited for camping in the park, which is prohibited.

"You don't fight genocide part time," says McGinley, 58, who goes by the nom de guerre Start Loving, a moniker tattooed on his forehead.

A dozen years ago, McGinley was a well-paid vice president at a software firm with a degree from Ithaca College and an MBA from Syracuse University. But then the passion for leadership that had made him a corporate turnaround expert morphed into ever more extreme social activism after, he says, he realized that "making rich people richer and myself richer is not a joyful life for a human being."

To spend a day with McGinley - bearded, tattooed, impoverished, estranged from his family - is to walk a fine line between what some call sainthood and others madness.

But no one - not his ex-wife, the Secret Service agents who keep a close eye on him, or the hundreds of tourists who chat with him week after week - thinks Jay McGinley is crazy.

Tourist attraction

In the first morning hours, the park remains mostly empty. The only visitors are squirrels that steal a chocolate bar Picciotto left during her night shift. "They are total criminals," McGinley says with a laugh.

The first tourists arrive in front of the White House in mid-morning, the sun shining bright. McGinley seems, to them, irresistibly intriguing, sitting in his tent, where he spends his time reading the newspaper or working on his laptop. He's a blogger (www.blogger.com/profile/13664297053460093858) and maintains his own YouTube channel (http://youtube.com/StartLoving1).

Indeed, his coherence and commitment have made him one of Washington's best-known street peace activists.

The tourists at Lafayette Park invariably see the tent and the posters warning of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the black-and-white photographs of Hiroshima and ask, as one young man puts it: "What's this sitting here about?"

"We are protesting here against nuclear weapons so that this doesn't happen to you guys," McGinley replies.

"Do you get paid?" asks another.

"No."

"So how do you survive?"

"Well, sometimes people make donations," McGinley explains.

He, Picciotto, and other peace activists share a house northeast of Thomas Circle, nine blocks from the White House, when not at the tent.

Thomas, who started the vigil with Picciotto in 1981, bought the house at a tax auction in 1998 with a $90,000 inheritance from his mother.

Some of the tourists start to drift away. Half remain and continue the conversation. McGinley begins to tell them about his concerns for the world, especially global warming. He asks them about the state or country they are from, and he tells them whether they have moved sufficiently toward green energy.

The children are eager to ask questions, unafraid, and genuinely interested.

After the group leaves, one of them, a 10-year-old, comes back and throws some of his pocket money into the donations cup next to the tent.

"This vigil might not make any difference at all, but it also might make a difference to reach out to all these kids," McGinley says. "It is sure worth a try."

A hunger for justice

Life was not always about bladder control and nuclear weapons for McGinley.

He left his vice president's job at a software firm in suburban Philadelphia in 1997 and went back to graduate school to become a school counselor in impoverished Chester.

In 2001, he left his wife, Catherine, and their two sons and started a hunger strike to call attention to his students' deprivation.

The McGinleys divorced in 2003. "Jay has always been a deep thinker and always been very philosophical," says his former wife, a teacher at Mary C. Howse Elementary School in West Chester. She refrains from expressing the anguish she related in past interviews, and has no more contact with McGinley.

Neither do sons Steven, 28, and Chris, 24. Both declined to comment.

McGinley concedes his estrangement from his family "hurts" and understands that his "journey makes many uncomfortable.

"But I've come to realize that this is how all major social improvement happens," he says. "It is never because it is reasonable, practical. It is because some folks simply do what is needed, no matter the personal cost. And sometimes they starve, or die of exposure. 'I consider myself a soldier,' said Gandhi. Me, too."

After The Inquirer published an article in late 2001 about his hunger strike in Chester over the plight of children there, a friend named Beverly Austin took him in and put him to work at her family's business.

"His son Steven and my son used to play soccer together," Austin says. "I couldn't see him being out there. And he will always have a place with us. We love him."

What motivates McGinley? "I think it is his spirit that's so fascinating," she says. "He has a got a lot of goodness in him."

But does his work make a difference? "I don't know," she says, sighing. "Then again, history has shown us that one person alone can indeed make a difference."

Diane Wilson, an activist and author of An Unreasonable Woman, about shrimpers and polluters in Seadrift, Texas, met McGinley at a rally against the Iraq war in Lafayette Park and calls him "a genuinely holy man."

At the time, in 2004, she recalls, he looked like "the typical businessman - buttoned-down shirt, clean-shaven, short hair."

It was two years later, in the summer of 2006, that he gave all of his remaining assets to his family and moved to Washington and became a round-the-clock peace activist.

"When people see other people who are that committed, it often frightens them," Wilson says.

McGinley, she says, "feels the pain of people he never met, and he cannot separate it from his life. In India, they would recognize him as a holy man for doing what he does. In Washington, D.C., you are a madman."

'I am not protesting'

All morning, the tourists come and go. A 17-year-old from Chicago talks with McGinley. "Thank you for doing this," he says.

A 28-year-old tourist from Italy comes to the tent, looks for a long time at the posters, and finally speaks:

"Beautiful setting you have here."

Soon, Picciotto, small and elderly, arrives on her bike to spell McGinley.

She and McGinley don't have much in common, apart from their passion for human rights.

Whereas President Obama is a hero to McGinley - "a man I would be lucky to take a bullet for," he says - Picciotto tends to believe in conspiracy theories and thinks everything that comes from the government is bad. "Politicians are Mafia," she says.

While McGinley gets some sleep at the activists' home, Picciotto sits in the tent. She never lies down, not even at the house. She is able to sleep, sitting, under her umbrella.

Unlike McGinley, she is not interested in engaging people in conversation; she just hands out fliers and states her mantra: "Nuclear weapons are bad."

By 5 p.m., she starts to get nervous. "I really need to go to the toilet," she says. She has been here seven hours.

McGinley arrives 15 minutes later.

The area around the tent has emptied, but that changes quickly with McGinley's return. People seem drawn to him.

"Spring is the most powerful time, because of all the school trips," McGinley says.

When asked why he is protesting in front of the White House, McGinley says: "I am not protesting. I do work in front of the White House. I try to wake up my fellow citizens, to make this the country like we were taught it should be when we were in kindergarten."

Around 8 p.m., after some heavy clouds and loud thunder, it starts to rain. The tourists have fled, and McGinley gets into his tent and begins to work on his computer.

For the next two hours, it pours.

McGinley sometimes has to shake the plastic ceiling so the collected rain doesn't get too heavy for the light construction.

By 10 p.m., the sky clears. Picciotto arrives on her bike. She will take over until 6 a.m., sleeping with one eye open while sitting upright, keeping a watch on the tent and on the White House.

The constant alternation, with not enough sleep, makes this vigil an exhausting commitment. McGinley knows that two people doing this is very little. "But maybe it could be an ignition point for some people," McGinley says. "I would rather take this chance than do nothing."