By Derrick Perkins (Photo/City of Alexandria/Vola Lawson)
Celebrated trailblazer and reformer Vola Lawson, the first female city manager in Alexandria, died Tuesday at the age of 79.
Originally from Atlanta, Lawson moved north to attend George Washington University. It wasn’t her first choice, she told interviewer Alice Reid for an oral history project in 2009, but it was where she met her husband, David.
Alexandria likewise was not Lawson’s first choice. She wanted to move to Chevy Chase but fell for the city after moving into the Parkfairfax neighborhood in 1965. The couple quickly became active in the community.
“[Almost] before we knew it, we began to put down roots. And so we never got back to Chevy Chase. We fell in love with Alexandria,” Lawson said in 2009.
After serving as assistant director for the economic opportunities commission, Lawson became a community development block grant coordinator. In 1980, she became assistant city manager for housing.
It was a job she loved, so much so that she turned down former Mayor Charles Beatley’s offer to become acting city manager in 1985. Beatley, though, would not be deterred. A few months later, city councilors made the job permanent.
Reforming the city’s police department became a point of pride for Lawson. When she took over the reins at City Hall, the department was mired in legal problems and marred by scandals and cronyism, she said.
“[I] would say that was the biggest problem I had at that time — trying to get a hold on the police department and get some competent leadership over there,” she said.
It was not her first run-in with the police. As a member of the Urban League in the 1960s, Lawson and a few others called on the department for help after a protest outside of a local ABC store threatened to turn ugly.
“When the police came, they were laughing along with the people who were harassing us. They were clearly very much good ol’ boys. They saw us as agitators or troublemakers or what have you,” she recalled. “Today, the police force in Alexandria, I think, may be the best in the country.”
Lawson also took pride in weathering the tough fiscal environment of the early 1990s and making City Hall a meritocracy.
“It was a challenge to continue to educate and motivate the city workforce and to make it represent the City of Alexandria. And I think that was another important accomplishment,” she said. “Now we have a very integrated workforce. We’re looking for highly competent people: women, men, minorities, nonminorities. I never believed it’s a question of: ‘Oh, I either want somebody who’s competent or I want a woman or a minority.’ I think you can set high standards and still find women and minorities.”
A breast cancer survivor, Lawson helped organize the Walk to Fight Breast Cancer in Alexandria. She remained active in the community in retirement, working with The Campagna Center and Animal Welfare League of Alexandria. The league’s shelter bears Lawson’s name.
“These are all things that I care deeply about. So other than the fact that I’d always hoped to be able to do it with David, who died in 2002, my life is good,” she said at the end of the 2009 interview. “It’s very full. My sons are grown. I have grandchildren now. So God has blessed me. I feel I’ve had a good life.”