Stewart Vetter remembers Manassas as acres of empty, green farmland and small, familiar shops on the downtown streets. Times were simple, people were more reserved and no one spoke unless he had something kind to say.

As Vetter recalled his life in Manassas--all 71 years of it--an easy smile slowly spread across his face. He crossed his hands, leaned forward and, with careful, distinct pauses, began to speak. In a way, Vetter embodies all that is real in Manassas, with its still simple way of living, far removed from the urban problems of a big city.

"Times were different, and I've seen a lot of changes," he said. "I was born in my parents' home at the corner of Church and Maple streets. It was the beginning of the Depression, and nothing was the way it is now."

It was a cold winter morning in December 1928 when Vetter, the youngest of seven children, was born. The First World War was over, and the economy was almost in shambles. His father, a farmer, and his mother, a homemaker, were trying to just make ends meet. Money was difficult to earn and even harder to save.

At that time, the roads were bare. Prince William officials were in talks with Fairfax County, hoping to secure the completion of a road--now Route 28--between Manassas and Centreville. Attempts to attract new industries to the area were underway. And Manassas, which wouldn't even be a city until 47 years later, was shaping its image among locals and Washingtonians. Unlike other towns in the region that had long been established, Manassas was just beginning to come into its own.

"There wasn't a whole lot here," Vetter said. "The county was mostly farms. There were seven large dairy farms on Sudley Road from Grant Avenue to Interstate 66. But you could see it was growing."

Today the farms are gone. They are now only a memory of the past, Vetter said. In their place are churches, retail shops, strip malls and businesses, a symbol of the complexity of modern society.

"The biggest difference is that there are more people and more buildings now," Vetter said.

When growing up, Vetter recalled, Manassas was a place where everyone knew each other by first name, where churches were always packed on Sundays and people never hesitated to speak to their neighbors.

Memories of hilly land are sweet, Vetter said. The last patch of undeveloped land in the city--the 93-acre diamond-shaped swath of hills and trees on the northern edge known as Smitherwood--will soon have 270 to 300 housing units, most of which will be single-family homes tailored for an upscale clientele, with a host of custom houses boasting bold, atypical designs. A man-made lake and a buffer zone of trees and greenery, to maintain the woody atmosphere, will likely surround the neighborhoods, a sharp contrast to the natural hilly land Vetter grew up with.

A precocious, dark-haired boy, Vetter found a love for sports at a young age. The walls in his home office are decorated with old newspaper clippings, framed photographs and other such memorabilia from his days as a high school athlete.

In school, classes were small and there were very few immigrants, if any, Vetter said, a sharp contrast to the crowded classrooms, influx of immigrants and burgeoning city Manassas has become. At the time, Manassas Park was also empty, barren land, he said.

Vetter played varsity football, basketball and baseball, excelling at all three. In 1947, his senior year of high school, he was named Osbourn High School's "best all-around athlete." He dreamed of college hoops and athletic stardom, looking toward higher education as his chance to excel. But then his mother died unexpectedly, and he was left with few choices. He knew that his place with his family.

Although he was offered a basketball scholarship to Lynchburg College, he declined it. He chose instead to work for the company his father founded, Central Mutual Telephone in Manassas, where Vetter later became its plant manager. The company was later sold and eventually became part of GTE Corp. There he met his future wife, Earlene Bostic.

"I used to see his picture in the newspaper, before I met him, when he was playing sports, and I just thought he was so handsome," said his wife of nearly 50 years.

He was nice and kind-hearted, too, she said. Vetter said it was the "way everyone treated everybody."

After retiring 1974, he purchased a Magnavox Home Entertainment store, known as Vetter's Magnavox in Manassas. By then he already had been instrumental in helping to shape the city's growth.

Elected to the Manassas City Council in 1961, Vetter served until 1986. In his 25 years on the council, he was part of the team that built the city's water and sewer system, Manassas Regional Airport and the city's schools.

It was Vetter, as vice mayor, who played a leading role in helping Manassas become a city in 1975. He helped form the Manassas Baseball League, which he coached for five years.

He was also an active member of the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company for 45 years, serving as chief for 12 years. In 1992, the company named Vetter "Fireman of the Decade."

"That's what I really loved," he said. "Helping people in that capacity. Look at the fire department, and you'll be able to trace the growth of the city."

Just look on his walls as proof. Photographs of him and the other firefighters capture the decades of Manassas.

While sifting through old memories, Vetter fell across pictures of himself as a council member, as a baseball player, as a volunteer firefighter, and of Manassas before there were so many people. Pictures of what is now Old Town include two of the most popular hangouts when Vetter was a youth, Cokes Pharmacy and Ackers Pool Room.

And photos of his schools. He attended Manassas Elementary School, at the corner of Peabody Street and Lee Avenue. The large red, stone building later housed the Prince William County Police Department but has been vacant for many years now. He attended Osbourn High School, which is still standing, though it's been renovated several times.

Vetter, who has Parkinson's disease and rests at home with his wife, lives down the street from his brother and two streets away from his youngest daughter, who frequently visits. The Vetters, who have four children, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this month and are expecting their third grandchild in February.

"I've lived here my entire life, and I'm proud of that," Vetter said. "I can't imagine where else I'd have gone. I've seen the way things were here when there was very little to what things are like now. And I wonder what this place will look like in another 70 years. It's going to be something else to see."

CAPTION: "Times were different, and I've seen a lot of changes," Stewart Vetter said of Manassas, his lifelong home.

CAPTION: Some members of the Manassas Volunteer Fire Company pose for a 1950s photo. They are, top row, left to right: Warren Hynson, Wade House, Edgar Rhor, Floyd Vetter, Sedrick Saunders and Raymond Davis; and bottom row, Jimmy Rice and Stewart Vetter.

CAPTION: Stewart Vetter, above left, and his brother, Wade, work together on a switchboard in the late 1940s. Stewart, second from left in the second center row below, played with the 1946-47 Osbourn High School basketball team. He was named the school's "best all-around athlete" in 1947.