Vola Lawson, scheduled to be inducted as Alexandria's acting city manager tonight, sat down after learning of her new appoinment last week and laughed.
Beside an inch-thick stack of congratulatory telephone messages on her desk was a full spray can of Static Guard. The attached note from a friend read "For use with City Council."
Lawson, the 50-year-old assistant city manager for housing, was recommended by Mayor Charles E. Beatley and approved by the City Council Feb. 19 for the job as the city's acting top administrator. She will replace Douglas Harman, who is leaving to become the city manager of Fort Worth.
The tall, heavyset woman who has toiled in the background of Alexandria city politics for the last 14 years takes over the management helm at a time when the city is smoking with controversy. City and federal grand juries are investigating allegations that Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel mishandled a 1984 police drug investigation.
But those who have worked with Lawson say they have no doubt about the ability of the woman they describe as "quick-witted," "creative," "a bulldog."
"She has the humor and the personality to be calm in the midst of hurricanes," said School Board Chairman Lou Cook, who attended high school with Lawson in Columbus, Ga. "She's a take-charge manager who knows how to clean things up."
"It's a challenge," Lawson said carefully when asked how she will deal with the strained relations between the City Council and the city manager's office caused by the investigations of Strobel's department. Beatley and council member Donald C. Casey asked Harman last week to place Strobel on administrative leave, but Harman refused.
Lawson said she would wait for the special grand jury report, which is due this week, before making any decisions on personnel matters. But she said she would decide the "scope and focus" of an administrative review of the Public Safety Department before the next City Council meeting, scheduled for March 12.
"She's a bulldog when she knows she's right," Beatley said, "She's strong-willed and gutsy, and that's what we need right now."
By her own admission, Lawson is not the polished, professional administrator that most city managers are. In fact, she left George Washington University in 1961 a few credits shy of graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science because she was having a baby.
A native of Atlanta, she has two sons, David, 23, and Peter, 19. Her husband, David, is a clinical psychologist who directs the Northern Virginia Training Center for the Retarded.
"I've come from a different place than most," Lawson said yesterday as she leaned back in her modest Housing Office across the street from City Hall, where she will move today. "I started as a citizen activist."
Carrying picket signs in the '60s, Lawson protested the inequality she believed blacks and women suffered, and she took her first city job in 1971 as assistant director of the Economic Opportunities Commission.
Bertha Moten, a city supervisor in the Human Services Department, remembers working for Lawson at the EOC. "She was tough, but she was fair . . . she had a family style of management," Moten said. "She cared about the whole person and didn't get lost in statistics."
Said Elsie T. Jordan, a longtime city employe who is now a personnel analyst: "She is the kind of person who rolled up her sleeves, put her boots on and helped us clean up" after the 1972 flood in the city's Del Ray section.
A former city Democratic Central Committee member, Lawson spearheaded the 1970 campaign that elected Alexandria's first black councilman, Ira L. Robinson.
She then headed the ad hoc committee that led to the estabishment of what is now Alexandria's Commission on Women.
Largely through her efforts, Alexandria became one of the nation's first municipalities to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment.
Since she became the city's first housing director in 1980, Lawson has initiated almost $115 million in low-income and senior citizen housing projects.
"She's creative and imaginative," said Margaret White, director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Washington field office.
As the City Council launches its nationwide hunt for a permanent city manager, Beatley said he would urge Lawson to apply for the post. By the end of City Council's interviewing process Lawson will have been city manager for three to six months, Beatley said, and "I don't think anybody is going to come out of the woods that will be as good."
Lawson said yesterday in the low-key manner that is typical of her that she had not decided whether she would consider the post.