Vola Lawson, Alexandria city manager, turned around tumult and advocated for minorities

Vola Lawson, a community activist who was Alexandria’s chief administrative officer from 1985 to 2000 and helped stabilize the city’s finances while championing affordable housing, minority hiring and women’s rights, died Dec. 10 at her home in Alexandria. She was 79.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said a daughter-in-law, Marian Lawson.

(Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post) - Vola Lawson, city manager of Alexandria, in 1985.

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Mrs. Lawson grew up during the Depression in Atlanta, where she was raised by grandparents she described as “enlightened and progressive.” Her grandmother had been a suffragist, and her grandfather had been an Atlanta school board member and activist friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., father of the civil rights leader.

Mrs. Lawson said that when she and her husband, a clinical psychologist, settled in Alexandria in the 1960s, the “good ol’ boy” system and segregationist Byrd political machine dominated Virginia politics.

The Lawsons, who were white, became involved in civic affairs, joining the Urban League and picketing the city government when a Confederate flag was flown outside Alexandria City Hall and when local businesses refused to hire or cater to blacks.

“When the police came, they were laughing along with the people who were harassing us,” she recalled.

In 1970, she became a campaign organizer for Alexandria’s first black council member since Reconstruction, Ira L. Robinson.

Mrs. Lawson joined the city government in 1971 and over the years helped oversee anti-poverty and housing programs. As assistant city manager for housing starting in 1981, she was credited with initiating more than $100 million in programs to aid low-income families and senior citizens.

In 1985, Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr. and the City Council appointed Mrs. Lawson city manager, a position in which she oversaw the daily operations of a city then of 108,000. (Today, Alexandria’s population is about 140,000.) She was the first female city manager in Alexandria and among the first women to run a local government in the Washington area.

She took the job at one of the most turbulent moments in the city’s history. The police force was in disarray, there were open tensions among new- and old-guard council members, and Alexandria was facing a mounting crisis of illegal drug trafficking.

“I feel like I’ve been named a piñata at a piñata party,” Mrs. Lawson said at the time.

Police chief Charles T. Strobel was entangled in investigations and lawsuits stemming from a drug probe he had allegedly cut short. Strobel, who resigned in 1987, was eventually acquitted of all charges that arose in his decade-long tenure, but Mrs. Lawson said the lawsuits affected the city’s ability to indemnify itself.

It was a slow climb back.

Part of her work, Mrs. Lawson said, was to keep Alexandria out of the headlines. She instituted a “no-surprise policy” requiring department heads to send daily memos alerting her to any problems that might explode publicly.

Her management style could be brusque. “I am impatient with work that is not well reasoned,” she once told The Washington Post. But she believed tight control was needed to steer a listing city.

“If you have acted in a way that hurt the city and you should or did know better, then you’re dead meat with Vola,” U.S. House Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), who served as Alexandria’s mayor from 1985 to 1990, once told The Post.

As city manager, Mrs. Lawson promoted blacks and emphasized minority contracting in a city with a sizable minority population (it’s now about 47 percent).

She instituted Head Start and other child-care services and was an active participant in the Northern Virginia Housing Coalition, which started in the mid-1980s to provide affordable housing for low- and middle-income families.

In a city of historic homes and burgeoning gentrification, she helped Moran pass legislation prohibiting a reduction in public housing units. The efforts were praised by some civic leaders but could not stop the displacement of thousands of low-income residents to make way for higher-end housing developments.

In the early 1990s, Mrs. Lawson helped scuttle a deal to build a new stadium for the Washington Redskins in Alexandria, despite pressure from then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and team owner Jack Kent Cooke. She argued that it was a giveaway to the sports franchise at the expense of taxpayers.

Mrs. Lawson was not anti-development and helped lure commercial and government buildings to the city. She worked with a succession of mayors to regain the city’s AAA bond rating, which meant the city could issue bonds at lower interest rates.

“She set the direction of the city for a generation to come,” Moran said.

Vola Marie Therrell was born Sept. 14, 1934, in Atlanta and completed high school in Columbia, Ga.

She won a partial scholarship to attend Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., but the tuition was still too high for her family to afford. She instead went to Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., before transferring to George Washington University.

In 1959, she married a GWU graduate student, David Lawson, who became director of the Northern Virginia Training Center for the intellectually disabled. He died in 2002. Survivors include three sons, David Lawson of Norfolk, Peter Lawson of Alexandria and MacArthur Meyers of Washington; two sisters; four grandchildren.

After leaving city government, Mrs. Lawson served on the board of the Campagna Center, a community service agency for children; the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, which named its shelter after her; and the Alexandria Police Foundation. She formerly was on the vestry of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria.

In the mid-1990s, she helped start Alexandria’s cancer fund-raising walk after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis and having a double mastectomy. She said that the walk has raised money to provide mammograms and follow-up care to more than 5,000 low-income women.