Virginia Stitzenberger has never been one to let conventions limit her.
As a young woman in Atlanta during the Depression, she ran a racially integrated office when that was taboo. An Arlington County resident for nearly 60 years, she found time as a young wife and mother to write, start a preschool and help organize a local political organization.
She worked full time when that was unusual for a married mother. And she was left a widow while still in her sixties. But she refused to become a recluse, choosing instead to travel the world on freighters and cruise ships.
Now, at 90, she has finished a novella and has been talking to an agent about selling it to publishers.
"I've been fortunate to have all these things happen to me. The door opened, and I was there," she said. "I did what I thought was fun."
Born Virginia McGarrah in rural Georgia, she spent her early childhood on her grandfather's farm but had to move to town because the farm was more than three miles from school--too far for daily journeys by wagon or horse and buggy.
After college, she moved to Atlanta to work as a journalist. But the Depression hit and her employer ran out of cash, paying his employees in scrip.
"We could ride trains and eat in hotels, but we had no money," she said.
Eventually, she found work on a federal research project that interviewed the unemployed to find out how they were doing. But the project ran into trouble in the segregated South.
"The white [interviewers] could not get into black homes," Stitzenberger remembered. So she suggested a solution--draw on Atlanta's clutch of black colleges for well-educated interviewers.
That decision won her respect from her bosses in Washington but caused other problems--the program lost free office space when the businessman who owned it learned that the staff was racially mixed, and Stitzenberger found she couldn't go out for coffee with her black male co-worker.
"She's her own person," said one of Stitzenberger's daughters Jean Berg, who also lives in Arlington. "She's a very strong person, and she's seen a lot in her day."
In 1939, Stitzenberger, who had met and married Bert, a U.S. Labor Department official, moved to North Arlington and settled down to raise a family. The county was still largely rural then. Glebe Road was a country lane, Buckingham was a brand-new development, and the local School Board sought to cut costs by doing without kindergarten and making first grade a half-day only.
Although other government employees and their families were also flooding into the county, Stitzenberger found herself lonely, isolated and worried about how to provide educational opportunities for her children. She and two other mothers hit on the solution of starting a cooperative preschool with the help of a local pastor.
Rock Spring Cooperative Preschool endures, and the school also became a font of progressive activism that remains an important part of Arlington politics.
Though Stitzenberger never ran for office herself, she and other Rock Spring parents fought for better public schools and helped organize Arlingtonians for a Better County, which supported liberal political candidates.
"A group of us marched on the legislature in Richmond to get them to let us have an elected [rather than appointed] School Board, and they were so overwhelmed they let us do it," she remembered.
Amid the activism and raising her two daughters and a son, Stitzenberger also did freelance writing, and after her two older children went to college, she went back to work full time. "I thought, why am I sitting at home worrying about finances and paying for college?" she said.
In 1961, she was hired to organize seminars on community improvement and found herself flying all over the country to give speeches and inspect improvement projects.
"Kansas sent me a list of clothes to wear. They wanted me to bring three hats and three evening dresses, and I didn't have three evening dresses," she said. "I felt like a fool because they had me marching down the aisle to 'Pomp and Circumstance' carrying a sheaf of wheat."
Though the job gave her great pleasure, she quit in 1966 because her husband took a job with the United Nations that sent the couple to India. Then they had made a list of places they wanted to travel to, and when her husband died in 1976, Stitzenberger decided to keep on going. "Last year I finished the list. My last trip was the Inland Passage in Alaska," she said.
Though she welcomes improvements such as dishwashers and electric blankets, Stitzenberger said she worries sometimes about the future.
"We're leaving behind the arts and spontaneity. So many [people] spend their lives sitting in front of machines," she said. "I don't want to live in virtual reality. I want to live in reality."
CAPTION: Virginia Stitzenberger helped found the Rock Spring Cooperative Preschool in Arlington more than 55 years ago.
CAPTION: Virginia Stitzenberger introduces Mrs. William Hasebrook to Madam Chiang Kai-shek, left, in 1963. In the early '60s, Stitzenberger organized seminars on community improvement and inspected projects throughout the country.