Lawson: City Manager, Advocate for Women
July 25, 2007
by Nina Tisara
Lawson with her Jack
Russell terrier Jack in
Lawson is the fourth of 12 Living Legends for
2007 whose lives will be chronicled in the
Alexandria Gazette Packet, this year. They are
being chosen from the list of 49 people
nominated by you. Living Legends of Alexandria
will be an ongoing project that documents the
lives of individuals who have made tangible
contributions to the quality of life in
Vola Therrell Lawson came of age and was
inspired to pursue a career in public service in
the 1960s, the era when President John F.
Kennedy asked citizens to consider not what
their country could do for them, but what they
could do for their country.
"We were driven by a belief that as part of
a committed and compassionate government, we
could make a difference," Lawson said in a
speech in 1993, when she was inducted into the
Virginia Women’s Hall of Fame.
Lawson was born in Atlanta in 1934, and as a
child lived with her paternal grandparents. Her
grandfather was elected to the school board from
the 4th Ward, which had all the historic black
universities and the church where the late
Martin Luther King Jr.’s father was pastor. In
what was then by law a totally segregated world,
she recalled recently, her grandfather would
meet on the front porch with leaders from the
colleges and with Daddy King, as the senior King
was known. It was his son who later led the
drive for desegregation in the United States.
"My grandfather was a passionate believer
in fairness and racial equality. So I grew up in
the heart of the deep south, but with
grandparents who were extremely idealistic and
incredibly fair-minded," Lawson said. Those
were qualities she took with her.
Lawson and her husband, David, moved to
Alexandria in 1965, with sons David, 4, and
Peter, 4 months, living at first in Parkfairfax.
"We never meant to stay. But we fell in
love with Alexandria and put down roots,"
They helped start the tenant’s association at
Parkfairfax and worked to save a piece of land
there as open space. She became active in
charity work, got involved in the Urban League,
and demonstrated for civil rights. Her husband
ran the successful city council campaign of Ira
Robinson, who served from 1970 to 1973 as the
first Black city councilman since
Reconstruction. The Youth for Robinson campaign
was led by a young man named Macarthur Myers,
whom Vola had met before, and he became a part
of their family. Lawson considers him her son.
In 1971, Lawson began working for the City as
assistant director for the Economic
Opportunities Commission, where she was in
charge of community outreach and grant
applications. In 1975, she was appointed
Director of Community Development Block Grants,
channeling federal money for housing into
Alexandria to help people buy or repair houses.
In 1981, Lawson was named assistant city manager
for housing. When the City transferred the
commercial and residential urban renewal
projects from the Alexandria Redevelopment and
Housing Authority (ARHA) to the City’s own
jurisdiction, she was responsible for the
construction and completion of almost $250
million worth of properties in the heart of
today’s downtown Alexandria.
In February 1985, when then City Manager Douglas
Harmon left his position, Mayor Charles Beatley
appointed Lawson Acting City Manager. When
Beatley left office that spring, according to
current Vice Mayor Del Pepper, he said that
leaving Vola as Acting City Manager was his gift
to the City.
In September of 1985, after a nationwide search,
the Council chose Lawson as the new manager.
Pepper, who was first elected to City Council
that same spring of 1985, and helped interview
all the candidates, said they had interviewed
four or five people that day and were tired, not
looking forward to interviewing one more person.
"She walked in and just electrified
everybody…. On a scale of 1 to 10, she was an
Pepper, who nominated Lawson as a Living Legend,
said, "What sets her apart is that she
really extended herself." Pepper said that
Lawson was always very prepared. "Things
went very smoothly. She was careful that Council
was never embarrassed.
Former Mayor Kerry Donley said Lawson ushered in
a new era of professionalism, hiring department
heads and managers who had professional
experience outside both the city and the region,
people with expertise and new ideas. Lawson
herself takes pride in having increased the
professionalism and diversity of the city’s
staff, hiring more women and minorities. She was
also responsible for forming the Alexandria
Commission for Women, which today oversees the
Office on Women.
Lawson was a pretty tight manager, Donley said.
"She always wanted to be informed and
involved. She believed truly that the buck
stopped at the Manager’s desk. There was true
accountability." Donley said he and Lawson
communicated well, talking two to three times a
day. "It made my job much easier and my
time as mayor truly enjoyable."
FORMER DELEGATE Marian Van Landingham said
Lawson’s long history of civic activism made
her very effective because she had so many
contacts in the city’s various interest groups
and the city departments she had worked for and
with. "She was smart, and tough, and
understood all the Byzantine connections and
conventions that made the city work. It takes a
long time for an outsider to learn what she knew
instinctively when she was hired," said Van
Lawson served 15 years as city manager, always
remaining active across the wider community.
Ferdinand Day, Alexandria’s first African
American School Board member, remembers her as
"a dependable, trusted friend of the Day
family for years."
"Mrs. Lawson’s extraordinary touch of
class and dignity, good manners and high
standards in perfect service have created a
lasting impact," he said. "She is a
stellar person who not only speaks about the
Judeo-Christian doctrine of brotherhood, but
practices it daily."
Longtime friend Nancy LaValle Perkins met Lawson
when both lived in Del Ray, and they often
worked together over the years. "Vola has a
great appetite for life. She managed the city
like a mother manages her family: she cared; she
was nosy. She was blessed with wonderful manners
and always treated everyone the same way."
Another longtime friend is Carlton A. Funn Sr.,
a native Alexandrian who taught in Alexandria
schools for 38 years. "I volunteered at
Hopkins House, which had kept me and my brothers
out of trouble when we were young," Funn
said, and he sometimes met Lawson through his
She now supports his work on an exhibit of
cultural diversity that he created nearly 50
years ago to emphasize Black History, which was
then not taught in schools. Of Lawson’s many
contributions to Alexandria, Funn says he
particularly respects that the City achieved a
double Triple A bond rating when she was City
Beverly Steele, who served Lawson as Deputy City
Manager, said, "The key thing about Vola is
that she came from the community." Along
with honesty, integrity and fairness, that was
the key to her success, Steele continued. She
noted that Lawson was not only the City’s
first female city manager, but also did much to
promote the status of women by hiring them.
Through her long service, she became a regional
and national leader, raising the city’s
U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) said he considers
Lawson his best friend. "She is so
compassionate, so bright and full of wonderful
intellectual curiosity, so well read, so
good-hearted. She’s just a wonderful
person," he said.
Lawson continues to work on projects she cares
deeply about. A breast cancer survivor who had a
double mastectomy, she said that a mammogram
saved her life because the kind of cancer she
had did not manifest itself through lumps. After
her recovery in 1994, she gathered
representatives from Alexandria Hospital, the
Office on Women and the Office on Aging as well
as the Public Health Department. The group
decided to raise funds to help provide education
and funding for mammograms to lower income
women, creating the Walk to Prevent Breast
Cancer as the chief fundraising vehicle.
Lawson serves on the State Commission on Local
Government. She also helped make a reality of
the new animal shelter approved by the City late
in her tenure by leading its fund-raising
efforts. The new shelter, named after her, was
dedicated in 2002.
Lawson and her Jack Russell terrier,
"Jack," recently returned to
Parkfairfax, where her apartment has a view of
the forested hill she and David worked to save
back when they first lived in the community.
"I love being back in Parkfairfax,"
Lawson said. "It’s been the beginning and
the end of our time in Alexandria. David’s
buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery and I’ll be there
next to him some day. Sometimes I wish it were
all starting over again. Those were such
wonderful days. We were young and all of our
lives lay in front of us."
"Living Legends of Alexandria" is a
project of the Rotary Club of Alexandria in
partnership with the Alexandria Gazette Packet.
Nina Tisara is Project Director.