Vola Lawson, the first female city manager in Alexandria’s history and a principal figure in the city’s modern course, passed away Tuesday. She was 79.
Appointed city manager in 1985, Lawson diversified the city’s workforce, helped weed cronyism and dysfunction out of the police department and guided Alexandria to fiscal stability during her 15-year tenure.
“In the best sense of the words, Vola was an institution in Alexandria,” said former councilman David Speck. “I think the role of city manager in Alexandria in large part is defined by the work she did.”
A native of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, Lawson took lessons of racial tolerance learned from her grandparents with her when she attended George Washington University in DC and later to Alexandria when she and her husband, David, moved to Parkfairfax in 1965. The pair helped found the neighborhood’s civic association, beginning Lawson’s 48 years of public life in Alexandria.
She worked to solidify green space and resolve other issues in her neighborhood and also joined the Urban League, participating in civil rights demonstrations.
“We picketed City Hall because it flew the Confederate flag,” Lawson said in a 2009 interview with the Office of Historic Alexandria. “We picketed the ABC store on King Street because it wouldn’t hire blacks, and we picketed the Diamond Cab Company because it wouldn’t hire, or pick up, blacks.”
In 1971, she was named assistant director of Alexandria Economic Opportunities Commission, where she worked as an advocate for people in low-income neighborhoods and assisted in relief efforts related to the Arlandria floods.
In 1973, she helped found the city’s Commission on Women.
Lawson moved into housing issues in 1975 when she was named assistant city manager. She initiated more than $100 million in low-income and senior-citizen housing projects and oversaw many projects that transformed the city to what it is today.
In 1985, she was appointed city manager after emerging as the best candidate in a national search.
‘[Former Mayor] Chuck Beatley said one of the best things he was leaving for the city when he left office in 1985 was Vola Lawson,” said Councilwoman Del Pepper, who was first elected to council in 1985. “She was serving as acting city manager and Beatley had seen that she got that position to made sure she got the opportunity to move forward as a candidate for the full-time job.”
Lawson was one of only three women in the United States to manage a city of more than 100,000.
“For years, when I’d go to the annual city manager’s conference, there were just no women, or blacks, at that time,” Lawson said in 2009. “Now there are more minorities—I mean, even than women—who are involved in public administration. But I can tell you those conferences were kind of lonely those first few years.”
Pepper said Lawson worried about some of the stereotypes concerning women in powerful positions in the 1980s, but she found a balance and hit her stride.
“Such had such a sharp mind and was so good at what she did,” Pepper said. "She loved people, loved being city manager.”
Lawson helped oversee a transformation of the Alexandria Police Department that had run amok with scandal in the 1980s. She was also instrumental in guiding the city out of financial troubles through the 1980s, ultimately helping the city attain top bond ratings in the 80s and 90s. She also oversaw the development of an educated and diverse city work force that was more representative of the population.
“When I became city manager, you had people who finished high school and came to work for the city,” Lawson said in 2009. “And I guess in those days there was nothing wrong with that. But I felt that we deserved a professional workforce.”
In 1992, Lawson teamed with city council and citizens to defeat a bid from NFL owner Jack Kent Cooke to build a football stadium at Potomac Yard, seen as a victory for local governments in making their own land-use decisions.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, Lawson went to work raising awareness following her recovery from a double mastectomy. She founded the city’s annual Walk to Fight Breast Cancer, which generates funding to provide mammograms to low-income women.
In 1997, she received the National Award for Innovative Leadership and Accomplished Professionalism from the American Society for Public Administration.
A lifelong animal lover, Lawson worked to build a new shelter in the city and served for many years on the board of directors for Animal Welfare League of Alexandria. In 1999, city council surprised Lawson by naming the shelter in her honor.
She remained active with the AWLA late in her life, even bringing dogs inside City Hall during council hearings to promote pet adoption events and other work at the shelter.
“She was a very much a Renaissance woman in terms of the things that interested her,” Speck said. “Every conversation included a reference to a movie she had seen and a book she had read. She had a very big picture of the world and a very deep, personal connection to the city and that made her who she was. And that really added to her role as city manager.”
Among countless awards and honors, Lawson was inducted into the Virginia Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and was named a Living Legend of Alexandria in 2007.
Patch will pass on funeral arrangements when they are determined.