The day Vola Lawson became Alexandria's city manager, a grand jury investigating the police department said the city had sunk "to one of the lowest points in {its} political history."

Two years later, city politics appears to be on a higher plane. Grand juries are not deciding whether officials should be indicted. Even gossip, which had become a municipal pastime, has quieted. Except for talk about Lawson.

A mother who did not graduate from college, a wit who once gave a wooden moose to a colleague, a movie fanatic who has seen "Some Like It Hot" too many times to count, Vola Lawson puzzles even those who know her best.

"If I had to talk about the most unusual person I know, I'd talk about Vola," said Democratic City Council member Redella (Del) Pepper. "She not only works incredible hours, she loves art galleries and Hitchcock movies. There are so many dimensions to her life."

Lawson heads the bureaucracy of an independent city of 107,500 residents, who fancy themselves as living amid an idyllic blend of modest development and historic homes that predate the District of Columbia. They view Crystal City as their ugly northern neighbor and Fairfax County as a Goliath hurling too many automobiles through their streets.

Lawson is adored by many civic leaders and admired by her bosses, the seven City Council members at whose pleasure she serves. However, her tough-minded, take-charge style is feared as well as cheered. Many city employes who know her red-hot temper were afraid to comment publicly about their so-called "Iron Lady." While some call her a charmer, she is also described as a bulldog or a dictator.

"You know I can't talk about her. She'd have my head," said one city administrator. Another said of Lawson: "She can switch from milk and honey to a flaming monster spitting fire. She can make you feel like the most important person in town and then cut you to threads. I've been shocked at the strong language she can use."

None of those who have left or are leaving city government would talk about her on the record. "Anything I say would be interpreted as sour grapes," said one.

Asked about her temper, Lawson responded, "I am impatient with work that is not well-reasoned."

While her management style may be tempestuous, her accomplishments are acknowledged. She quickly brought order to the city government, then tackled housing problems and succeeded in winning a higher bond rating for the city.

Lawson has consolidated so much power since she took over the city's $217 million operating budget and its 1,900 employes on Feb. 27, 1985, that many people believe that she will be calling the shots in Alexandria well into the next decade. Because of the large number of key city employes who have quit, retired or been reassigned since Lawson became city manager, there is apparently no one left who could threaten her position.

Although increasingly involved in regional and state affairs, Lawson is not as well known as her counterparts. She likes it that way. When asked about herself, she rarely elaborates.

"I hear you're a speed reader. How fast do you read?"

"I read fast."

"You're often in the office until 10 p.m. How many hours a week do you work?"

(Pause.) "I like to work."

At 52, Vola Lawson is in her glory.

An imposing woman, Lawson is paid $75,000 a year to run a city she has lived in and loved for 22 years.

Born in Atlanta, Lawson was reared by her grandparents there after she stubbornly refused to move out of town with her parents. She was 4 years old at the time. In 1965 she moved to Alexandria and, while attending George Washington University, met her husband David Lawson, a clinical psychologist who is now director of the Northern Virginia Training Center for the Retarded. They married, and she dropped out of school.

First as a civic activist protesting broken boilers in the Parkfairfax apartments in 1967, then as a 1970 campaign organizer for Alexandria's first black council member, and more recently as city housing director, Lawson treats public service as a religious calling. Lawson was first employed by the city in 1971.

"It's a seamless existence," she said in a recent interview. "It's very hard to dichotomize between my personal and private life. This is the best job."

As a citizen, she successfully pushed Alexandria to become the first Virginia locality to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment; as city manager she is trying to open the Washington area's first school-based health clinics that would prescribe birth control devices.

For years, Lawson has promoted black rights. She is following in the footsteps of her grandfather, D.M. Therrell, once the superintendent of Atlanta schools and an activist friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.

Since becoming city manager, she implemented a new affirmative action program and appointed Henry Howard as deputy manager, the highest administrative position a black has ever held in the city.

"She's an original '60s liberal," said Mayor James P. Moran Jr., a Democrat. Nonetheless, she has managed to win over the two Republican City Council members.

"She's not a dewy-eyed liberal," said Republican council member Robert L. Calhoun. "She recognizes that you can only do so much to eliminate poverty . . . . She's realistic."

Lawson is one of a few women who run American cities with populations of more than 100,000, according to the International City Management Association. What sets Lawson apart, said association executive director William H. Hansell Jr., is that she is "very much a part of the people, and it shows . . . . She's been there and she knows."

Hansell predicts that now that Lawson has reshaped her staff, she will devote more time to regional affairs. She is active in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and she founded the Northern Virginia Housing Coalition, which seeks to provide affordable housing for low- and middle-income families. Gov. Gerald L. Baliles named her to head a statewide community, economic development and housing committee that is exploring the impact of federal funding cutbacks.

Perhaps because she knows the names of every city street and alley, and perhaps, too, because she has advanced despite the lack of a college degree (she won a partial scholarship to Radcliffe, but her parents still could not afford the tuition), many residents speak of her as if she were their favorite relative.

"I've seen several city managers," said Ben Brenman, an active civic leader, "and Vola's the most effective one we've had. She's honest. She's straightforward. She does her homework. And she's got more love in her than most people." A mother of two sons, she also brought two foster sons into her home, rearing them and treating them as brothers to her own two boys.

While many who work closely with Lawson see her as caring, they also see her as one who can drive them crazy.

"I'm sure that there are some who think redoing a memo 14 times to get the last nuance right is a good use of time," said one high-level official. "But there are others here who think it's not."

If there is any area where the city government needs improvement, Republican council member Carlyle C. Ring said, it is personnel.

"There has been a substantial degree of turnover on the staff," Ring said. "And in terms of successfully handing personnel issues, we continue to have problems." He cited two personnel grievances the city recently lost.

Among those retiring or resigning during the two-year Lawson reign: the deputy city manager, city attorney, police chief, fire chief, city assessor and finance director. Others have been reassigned.

"Maybe they each have had a good reason," Ring said about the resignations. "But we have to ask what effect on the city there is when you lose a substantial part of the senior staff."

Lawson said the personnel changes stem from "everything from people who reached retirement age to people who got a call to go into the ministry."

When Lawson was appointed city manager after serving for seven months as interim city manager, a special grand jury had just concluded its investigation of the city police department; Michael E. Norris, then the sheriff, was accused of using or condoning the use of cocaine (an allegation never substantiated); city politicians were calling each other names, and Douglas Harman, the popular manager for almost a decade, had left town in disgust.

"I feel like I've been named a pinata at a pinata party," she said at the time.

Since taking over, she is credited with saving the city millions of dollars by going to New York and persuading Standard & Poor's that the city deserved a AAA bond rating instead of AA. The higher rating means the city pays a lower interest on the bonds it issues.

Lawson has masterminded several housing initiatives, including the relocation of the Cameron Valley public housing tenants. For 20 years, she said, she heard talk of condemning the 264 Cameron Valley residential units, many of which were sliding off their foundations.

In just two years, Lawson has managed to win City Council approval to sell that valuable Duke Street site and purchase replacement sites scattered throughout the city for the tenants. A careful selection of the sites and an artful explanation of their need seemed to head off the expected uproar from residents who do not want subsidized housing anywhere near them.

Also, Lawson is well on her way to providing day care in every city elementary school. Parents are charged for the care according to their income.

This year, she introduced another major initiative, a $1 million pay equity program to reevaluate all city jobs and try to pay employes more equitably.

Her greatest challenge, she said, will be to find the least costly way to run everything from schools to trash collection. While the cost of city services will continue to expand, she said, the tax base and commercial development cannot keep pace.

"The next couple of years are going to be difficult," she said. "The revenues in the 1990s won't grow at the same rate as the 1980s. There will be some redevelopment, but basically we are a built-up city."

Conscious that Alexandria homeowners already pay the area's highest real estate tax rate, $1.34 per $100 of assessed value, Lawson said, "We don't want to raise taxes. We're going to have to look at new ways to do things more cost-effectively."

Lawson can look to mayor Moran as a strong ally in whatever difficulties lie ahead. Friends for more than a dozen years, they first met at the District's Outer Circle movie theatre. Later, their families shared a summer home at Rehoboth Beach, Del. It was there that Moran may have begun what has become an established pattern of supporting her recommendations.

Lawson's husband David had sat in a bowl of Cheerios that one of the 38 people in the house that day had left on a chair. It was time, Lawson decided, for some rules. She suggested families sign up for certain weekends to avoid crowding.

It went to a vote. Moran sided with Lawson, as he has on almost every proposal she has put before the council. In Rehoboth, however, her motion failed.