When Vola Lawson was only 4 years old, she displayed the strong-mindedness that has become a hallmark of her first year as Alexandria's top administrator.

"My parents were moving from Atlanta," she recalled last week. "And I told them I wanted to stay." She did, and her grandparents, one a suffragette, the other a civil rights activist, reared her.

Now, more than a year after she was named to head the city bureaucracy (first in an acting capacity, then as permanent city manager), Lawson's strong will is winning her praise.

"She's decisive," said City Council member Robert L. Calhoun, a Republican. "She's a hard taskmaster. She's no nonsense," said former mayor Charles E. Beatley, a Democrat.

Some of the 1,900 city employes she directs give a different view, complaining -- although not for attribution -- that she nit-picks them to the point of frustration. "Dwells in overkill," were the words one used. Another said her insistence on being the center of almost every issue drains enthusiasm and creativity from able administrators.

"Everybody loves her -- the mayor, the citizens -- because she's got a great personality," said one former city employe. "She's just extremely difficult to work for, because if you don't go along with Vola, you don't go along."

Lawson rejects the criticism that she nit-picks her staff, but she says she believes that "excellence is in the details." When she discovered that the city's Chinquapin Recreation Center had plenty of hot dogs but no buns -- among other minor supply problems -- she ordered a sweeping review of the center's purchasing procedures.

A tall, heavyset woman with intense brown eyes and graying hair, Lawson, 51, quickly has become Alexandria's single strongest political force. Neither the mayor nor any other member of the City Council has assumed as strong a role in resolving the city's problems, Beatley said.

"She's got political clout," he said. "She's become the focal point."

Lawson is the only woman to run a local government in the Washington area and the first female city manager in Alexandria.

Unlike more traditional government administrators of her rank, she never finished college and has strong past ties with partisan politics -- the city's Democratic Party.

In the past 12 months, Lawson has promoted blacks (she won't say how many) and given top priority to granting minority contracts and addressing women's needs, including improved child care services.

She won praise for her swift action breaking up the Public Safety Department, which had placed the police, fire and code enforcement divisions in one agency.

For her behind-the-scenes negotiating in settling a bitter employe pension dispute and a 5-year-old feud between city firefighters and the Alexandria Volunteer Fire Department, Lawson has earned respect as a skilled compromiser.

A 20-year resident of Alexandria, she prides herself on knowing "someone on almost every block" in the city of 108,000. "It really pleases me," she said, when someone on garbage truck waves and calls out: "Hey, Vola."

Lawson is a private person who refuses to answer questions about how many hours she works. Those who know her say she is hard working, articulate and a perfectionist.

"I know it's frustrating for the staff," said City Council member Patricia S. Ticer, a Democrat. "She may be more of a military officer than need be -- but that's maybe necessary at first. I give her high marks."

Mayor James P. Moran Jr., a Democrat, said Lawson has "only the city's best interest in mind . . . . Vola has City Hall under control. However she does it, she has my support."

In her 15 years with the city, 10 of them directing housing programs, Lawson has produced some undisputed accomplishments. Since she became housing director in 1980, she initiated almost $115 million in programs for low-income families and elderly persons.

Alexandria's 1985 All America Cities Award was in large part attributed to her, because she wrote and coordinated the city's presentation that led to the honor.

A natural choice to replace former city manager Douglas Harman temporarily in February 1985, when he resigned to head Fort Worth's city government, she was appointed by the council to the $75,000 post permanently seven months later.

"It was one of the most turbulent times in the city's history," Lawson said about her first year as city manager. With a special state grand jury investigating charges that Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel inappropriately halted a 1984 cocaine investigation, and a federal grand jury probing into the police department, she said one of her primary goals was to keep Alexandria out of the headlines.

She succeeded in part, officials say, by instituting what is now called the "no-surprise policy." Every department head was told to send her a daily memo reporting any issues that might cause a stir so that she could be the sole spokeswoman. Until recently, she rarely returned phone calls from the media.

She met her husband David while a student at George Washington University, and she left the school in 1961, a few credits short of a political science degree, to raise the first of her two children. David Lawson is now a clinical psychologist who directs the Northern Virginia Training Center for the Retarded.

A former city Democratic Central Committee member, she was the cochairman of the 1970 campaign that elected Alexandria's first black councilman, Ira L. Robinson. Beatley recalled that she helped him on his own first council campaign.

"She's an institution," said council member Redella (Del) Pepper, a Democrat who first met Lawson about 15 years ago when the two were community activists working on an NAACP banquet.

School Board Chairman Lou Cook goes back further with Lawson; the two attended high school in Columbus, Ga., together.

With so many personal ties with city leaders and broad community support, Democrats, Republicans, and even City Hall workers agree that Lawson is one institution that is likely to stay.