In her 16 years with the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, Dorothy Werner has witnessed and helped tell the story of the agency's growth: from three parks to 17, and from 3,000 acres to more than 9,000.
She's the agency's spokeswoman, the one who helps get the word out about such facilities as the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park, the Bull Run Regional Park or Cameron Run Regional Park.
Now, however, Werner's retiring, and the many people who have worked with her are speaking up about what she has done.
"Dorothy's respect for accuracy and dedication to telling the citizens of Northern Virginia about their regional parks has shaped the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority's public information policy," said Darrell G. Winslow, the authority's executive director.
"Without a doubt, she is the most agreeable human being to work with that God ever put on the face of this earth," said Lorraine Foulds, a Fairfax citizen activist. "She comes up with wonderful ideas, and she has the knack for making you think it's your idea."
"I think of her as the grand dame of public relations, in the nicest sense of the word," said Diane Bechtol, head of media relations for the Alexandria Tourist Council.
Werner, a sixth-generation Tennessean, began her career as a photojournalist on The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, and later worked as a public relations executive in the New York fashion industry.
She lived in Stockholm for five winters, Vienna for three years and the Orient for eight years with her husband, Merle M. Werner, a former foreign correspondent and U.S. Foreign Service officer.
"I loved the foreign service," she said. "I felt I was having my cake and eating it, too." While overseas, Werner worked at various volunteer jobs, including editing a woman's magazine in Korea.
In 1969, the Werners moved to Northern Virginia with their two children. Three years later, Dorothy Werner went to work as an assistant in the public relations department of the park authority.
Today, the authority represents Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties, and the cities of Falls Church, Fairfax and Alexandria.
When Werner joined, it was 10 years old, and had been organized by Northern Virginia citizens and local governments interested in planning, acquiring, developing and operating a system of regional parks.
Werner thought she'd work there for a few months, maybe -- or, a year.
But she became increasingly interested in the authority's work, including its efforts to preserve parklands. "The land that's being saved is going to mean something to future generations long after we're gone," she said.
Her first big assignment was to publicize the opening of the swimming pool at Pohick Bay Regional Park, located on the Mason Neck peninsula in Southern Fairfax County. At that time it was the largest swimming pool on the East Coast. "We had a big turnout for it," Werner said.
The peninsula, known as the only East Coast refuge for the southern bald eagle, offers four miles of bridle paths, nature trails, picnic shelters and tables, campsites and golf, among other activities.
Werner also joined the authority's annual Bluebell Walk at Bull Run Regional Park and was astounded to discover only six participants. "All this beauty," she marveled, "and we have only six people on this walk!"
Werner changed the Bluebell Walk into the Bluebell Week. By the following year, she had persuaded over 2,000 people to participate, she said.
The facilities and events Werner has promoted over the years are legion, and include:Virginia's only public skeet and trap shooting center and indoor archery range, also at Bull Run Regional Park. The 100-foot-wide, 44-mile-long W&OD trail, a favorite of bikers and joggers, stretching from the Potomac River nearly to the Blue Ridge mountains. Five regional swimming pools, including the first wave pool in Virginia and two of the largest pools on the East Coast.
She has written about ospreys and dog shows, picnic grills and horseshoe pits.
"Here, a separate world exists only minutes from the tangle of suburban traffic," she wrote about Upton Hill Regional Park. "A world where wildflowers push brave, frail shoots toward the spring sun, and where glowing autumn trees are mirrored in the reflecting ripples of a scenic pond."
Her last big project for the authority is a just-published book by author Dr. James Munson on Col. John Carlyle and the historic Carlyle house in Alexandria, which was built in 1752 and is one of Virginia's finest examples of the Georgian style.
"I think the most meaningful part or the entire job has been working with citizen groups," she said. " . . . When you get down to local government, this is where it all begins. This is so exciting -- to work with citizens who want to get a project done is a very rewarding thing.'
Werner's friends extend beyond the park agency but their enthusiasm for her work remains the same. "She's just a wonderful person," said Eloise Brancato, former historic trails chairman for the National Capital Area Federation of Garden Clubs, who worked with Werner to place the W & OD trail on the National Register of Historic Trails.
Brancato was especially impressed by Werner's W & OD trail guide-slim enough to fit in a jeans pocket, with information about trail wildflowers, sights, rest stops, bicycle repair shops and more. "I just love the way she wrote it up."
"As ladylike as she is," said Alexandria Tourist Commission's Bechtol, "she's also tenacious and has a wonderful, charming way of convincing reporters and editors and anybody else to cover her events, and to do what she would like for them to do -- and, she does it in the nicest, most professional and charming way that you could never, ever, say 'No' to Dorothy."
Werner's retirement takes place at the end of the month, at which time her successor, Carol Ann Cohen, will take over. An avid genealogist and traveler, Werner plans to continue her genealogical research and writing, and to travel with her husband, she said.