In a town with plenty of historic figures, Vola Lawson is undoubtedly part of Alexandria’s pantheon. She not only was the first woman city manager in Alexandria’s history, she was the first woman to run a large municipality anywhere in the Washington area. She took over at a time of severe strife for Alexandria, and is widely credited with bringing order and good government to the city. She also loved animals, survived breast cancer and helped keep the Redskins from building a stadium in Potomac Yards.
Lawson died Tuesday in her home, of a heart attack, at age 79. Adam Bernstein’s excellent obituary is here. Derrick Perkins also had a good piece in the Alexandria Times here and Carla Branch wrote a fine appreciation of Lawson in the Alexandria News here. And if you want to read it straight from Lawson’s mouth, she gave an extensive interview to former Post reporter and editor Alice Reid in 2009, which is here.
Lawson’s life story is fascinating, in part because she was raised in Atlanta by her grandfather, a longtime member of the Atlanta school board, and she grew up around that city’s famed civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Sr. After moving to this area to attend George Washington University, she married, settled in the Parkfairfax section of Alexandria and became a civic activist. She lobbyied for flood protection and against the city’s use of the Confederate flag, and in 1970 helped elect the first black city councilman since Reconstruction.
Then Lawson began working for the city to improve housing for the poor and other urban renewal projects, leading to her becoming assistant city manager for housing in 1980. She told Reid she really enjoyed that job and didn’t want a promotion to city manager, but eventually accepted it in 1985, not long after Jim Moran was first elected mayor. She said she was the third woman in America to be city manager of a city with a population of 100,000 or more.
Alexandria at the time was having big troubles with its police department, its city politics and its dire financial condition. Lawson helped the city pull itself out of all of that. She also resisted the lure of a new football stadium for the Redskins in Alexandria, and after a double mastectomy in 1996, she launched the city’s first Walk to Fight Breast Cancer, which has raised money for more than 5,000 mammograms. She left city hall in 2000 but continued to work in community service for children, animal welfare and at Grace Episcopal Church.
And she raised three sons. Now that is a life well lived. “So God has blessed me,” she told Reid in 2009. “I feel I’ve had a good life.” Reid’s transcribed interview is here.