An article yesterday about the retirement of Alexandria City Manager Vola Lawson incorrectly reported her husband's profession. David Lawson is a clinical psychologist. (Published 09/15/1999)
Vola Lawson, the tough veteran city manager of Alexandria, announced yesterday that she will retire in March, marking a major transition for the city she helped define during the 28 years she worked for it.
"I think this city is one of the greatest cities in America," said Lawson, standing in the City Hall lobby that was named for her this year. "This is a very bittersweet day for me."
Lawson, who turns 65 today, has been city manager since 1985, a tenure more than twice the national average. During that time, the city has lured or endured major new development, including the planned U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and a planned 300-acre residential and commercial complex on an abandoned railroad yard. Under Lawson, Alexandria also turned away a bid from then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and then-Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke to build a football stadium there.
In her 14 years, Lawson served under four mayors, all of whom stood with her yesterday, singing her praises.
"Vola has never met a stranger," said state Sen. Patricia S. Ticer (D-Alexandria), one of the former mayors. "She is a shining example of what a public servant should be."
Although her retirement was expected, a murmur still ran through the city of 122,000 yesterday.
"Boy, that's going to change the city more than anything I can imagine," said Katherine Morrison, executive director of the Campagna Center, a prominent local charity. "I don't know anyone who knows Alexandria better or has devoted more of their life to Alexandria."
Lawson worked her way up in Alexandria, blazing a path for women and minorities that some say is her prime legacy. As city manager, she has transformed City Hall from a largely white bureaucracy to an institution that better reflects the city's 40 percent minority population.
"I think her legacy in the city and in the minority communities will be absolutely enduring," said J. Glenn Hopkins, executive director of Hopkins House, an agency for children and families. "Her ability to be compassionate and to create a compassionate government, her ability to manage and her ability to be accessible to black people, to Hispanic people, to old people, to everybody, regardless of their background or their history or their race, is exceptional among people of her level."
Among today's city and county administrators, Lawson's professional pedigree is unusual. She attended George Washington University part time but dropped out when she had her first child. She plunged into community activism, and as a campaign organizer helped elect the city's first black council member in 1970.
Her entry to City Hall was with the anti-poverty program, and she later worked in the housing office. She quickly rose to assistant city manager and found time to initiate the Head Start program and after-school child care at every elementary school.
Lawson said she became an Alexandrian by accident. She and her husband, David, a psychiatrist, had planned to move back to Chevy Chase, but she got hooked on the community.
"We'll live the rest of our lives here," she said. "We never planned to live here. We fell in love with Alexandria."
Praise gushed from all corners yesterday, but there were criticisms, too: of an overbearing management style and a temper.
"She's very controlling, and that probably is her downside," said Jack Sullivan, who heads the city's civic federation. Nonetheless, said Sullivan, she has "a marvelous personality" and is "one of the ablest public administrators I have ever met."
Lawson's wrath is "legendary," said a close friend, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who as mayor hired Lawson. But the source of the anger, he said, is unselfish.
"If you have acted in a way that hurt the city and you should or did know better, then you're dead meat with Vola," he said.
William H. Hansell Jr., who heads the International City/County Management Association, said her 14-year tenure is "remarkable," especially in a community as "diverse and challenging as Alexandria."
She accomplished it by reflecting the values of the city, he said, laughing that "there are not too many city managers who tell a billionaire and a governor where to stick their stadium."
Lawson put the city on firm financial footing, twice achieving the Aaa bond rating and significantly lowering real estate taxes.
Her retirement will take effect March 1, after which she plans to see more of her two grandchildren, enhance her reputation as a movie buff and read the three stacks of books she bought at yard sales.
When people walk into the lobby that bears her name and wonder who Vola Lawson was, Moran said, they should be told, "She was a woman who chose to devote her mind and her heart to all the citizens of this community."