By Eugene Scheel
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Frank Raflo, who passed into eternity three weeks ago at 89, grew up bright, urban and Jewish in the insular, rural and Protestant county that was Loudoun before 1950. For him, it was easier to fight the establishment than be part of it.
In his historical work, "Within the Iron Gates; Loudoun: Stories Remembered (1925-1975)," Raflo describes himself as "the local troublemaker . . . always eager to get involved in every public debate and to begin his rebuttals." He had that New York City style of gab.
The book's title refers to the iron gates at the Loudoun courthouse grounds in downtown Leesburg. Raflo was born a scant block away, in December 1919, above a store called New York Bargain House. The store was founded in 1911 by his mother, Fannie Bulitsky Raflo, and was later run by her husband, Joseph, under the name Raflo's.
At the time, many towns in the South had one clothing store run by a Jewish family. Jewish people were considered by many to be the best tailors and the most astute buyers of the latest fashions.
A graduate of old Leesburg High School, where he always ranked at or near the top of his class, Raflo graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the College of William and Mary in 1940. Shortly afterward, he took some knocks in his hometown as editor of the now-defunct Loudoun News, one of two Leesburg newspapers.
As an editor, he became adept with figures and statistics, a hallmark of his later writings and conversations.
Once, the county bought space in the other Leesburg newspaper for a lengthy legal ad that was to run four times. But the ad had a mistake, so it ran four more times after the correction was made.
In such cases, the advertiser usually would not have to pay for the incorrect version of the ad. Raflo, however, suspected that his competitor had double-billed the county. He checked county records, found out he was right and wrote an editorial accusing his rival of fraud.
The other paper's editor accosted him on the courthouse corner. As Raflo tells the story in Frances Reid's book, "Inside Loudoun: The Way it Was," he demanded that Raflo tell him who had written the editorial.
"Who writes the editorials in the Loudoun News is none of your damned business," Raflo replied. The other editor, who outweighed Raflo by 60 pounds, responded by belting him. But Raflo stood his ground.
His introduction to local politics came at age 21, when some friends persuaded him to go to a polling place on Election Day and give out hand stamps with the name of a write-in candidate so voters could stamp it on the ballot. The incumbent was Michael Henry Whitmore, who had been the Leesburg District supervisor for more than 30 years.
As Raflo recalls the scene in "Within the Iron Gates," Loudoun Circuit Court Judge J.R.H. Alexander came up to him and asked, "Boy, what are you doing here?"
After he had explained his purpose, Alexander told him, "Boy, now you hear me out and hear me good. I want you and your stamp to get off this sidewalk, away from this polling booth, out of this courtyard. And I want you to move out right now. Is that clear, boy? Do you hear me? Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes sir," Raflo replied. He wrote that as he walked hastily from the courtyard with his eyes lowered, he wondered "where were my friends of yesterday?" who had promised to be there with him. A practical joke played on a Jewish Phi Beta Kappa? Raflo does not speculate on that in the book.
He became someone to reckon with through his editorials and short pieces. He was elected to the Leesburg Town Council in 1949 and became Leesburg mayor in 1961. But when he ran for a second term as mayor during a water crisis, Leesburg residents found mud coming out of their spigots on election morning, and Raflo lost his bid.
He was a snappy dresser. Sporting a dark suit, tinted glasses and the trendiest shoes and ties, Raflo looked every bit the dapper politician and haberdasher.
I was at his family's South King Street store in the 1960s, when an African American woman walked in. She was in tears. "Is this the Jew store?" she asked. The woman said she had been across the street at the Clothes Horse, where the testy owner had told her that "she didn't serve Colored, but maybe the Jew store across the street could take care of me." At Raflo's, she was treated royally. (The store closed in 1976.)
Raflo championed the underdog. In "Within the Iron Gates," he told of helping a black woman who had bought a trailer in 1974 and placed it on a three-acre family parcel. She couldn't read or write, and didn't realize that a special-exception permit was needed for the trailer. Raflo argued her case before the Board of Zoning Appeals, stating that "sometimes the rigidly marked man-made rules must be tempered with compassion." The board agreed. He termed the appeal his "finest hour."
He was on the Loudoun Board of Supervisors from 1972 to 1987, when he resigned for health reasons. He supported slow growth or no growth but, like others on the board, he was stymied by state policies that trumped county wishes.
Raflo looked over budgets meticulously. But in "Within the Iron Gates," he acknowledged that, although he constantly asked "what is it going to cost?" and "who is going to pay for it?," he found that "most of the time I eventually went along and supported the spending of the money."
Those who saw Raflo in downtown Leesburg during his years as a supervisor are likely to remember him as a quick and determined walker, decked out in a narrow necktie or bow tie, wearing a red or plaid vest, always ready to stop for an argument or a discussion. He said the vest was the most suitable resting place for his Phi Beta Kappa key.
His later years were often spent writing. I especially admired his interviews of Loudouners of all stations of life in his green-sheeted Public Pamphlet in the 1980s, and his vignettes about town neighborhoods and special childhood haunts in "Leesburg Lore," which he wrote around 1980. The works sparked memories for many of his contemporaries.
Raflo's memorial service was held at Congregation Sha'are Shalom, a Leesburg synagogue that was not there when he was in the prime of life. R.I.P.
Eugene Scheel is a historian and mapmaker who lives in Waterford.