By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
One way to a girl’s heart is to earn her mom’s stamp of approval. That’s what Dana Lawhorne, Alexandria’s sheriff for the past 15 years, did in the late 1970s – albeit accidentally – as he attempted to woo Linda Fink.
Lawhorne went to work as a security officer at what was then called the Hamlets, a series of three-story garden apartments on Beauregard Avenue in Alexandria’s West End, after graduating from T.C. Williams High School in 1976. He quickly got to know a woman named Flo Fink, who worked in the Hamlets’ rental office.
“One of the things that we had to do was work with the rental offices and do the mail runs. So you knew all of the people … because you worked closely with them,” Lawhorne said. “I already knew her mom and thought the world of her. Got along really great with her because she thought I was funny.”
Though Lawhorne knew Flo, he didn’t realize she had a daughter – actually two – until a year later, in August 1977, when he pulled up to the Hamlets Club to relieve another officer.
“He was standing there next to this very cute girl and he introduced her as Flo Fink’s daughter,” Lawhorne said. “And I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know she had daughters.’ … She was just the cutest girl I’d probably ever seen in my life. I thought, ‘I’ve got to know more about her.’”
The next afternoon, Lawhorne rushed through the doors of the rental office and bounded up to Flo, who greeted him with, “Well, I understand you met my daughter last night.”
Lawhorne claims that Flo told him her daughter had enjoyed meeting him, a memory that Linda labeled as false.
“There’s a big disagreement about this,” Linda said. “If my mother said that, then she was lying. I don’t even know if I talked to my mother about meeting you.”
“It worked,” Lawhorne laughed. “Thirty-five years and three kids later, it worked. Your mom was a very smart lady. … She was encouraging. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ve got a chance.’”
Lawhorne knew Linda worked at the main Hamlets office, which was just off property, and that she got off work at 5 p.m.
“At about 5:10, I knew she’d be coming down to the court where I just happened to be in my security car on patrol. And she pulled in and I pulled up and asked her out – and here we are,” Lawhorne said.
And what was the magical line that won Linda’s heart?
“You wanna go get a beer?” Linda laughed.
“Hey, I worked on that one for a while,” Lawhorne countered.
The first date in their very Hamlets-centric romance was at the Cellar Club at the Hamlet Shopping Center.
“Most of that is correct,” Linda said. “What’s not correct is I don’t even remember talking to my mom about meeting him. So you probably said something and then she said that because she was being nice to you.”
“Oh now come on,” Lawhorne said. “I was making $2.75 an hour. Had a uniform. Had an apartment. I think my end table was an asparagus crate. But I can see why you were attracted to a man of such means. … Actually, I really still to this day don’t know why you went out with me.”
“Because you were going to buy me a beer,” Linda said. “That’s all it took.”
Growing up in Alexandria
Dana Lawhorne and Linda Fink were both Alexandria kids. Linda has lived her whole life in the city, while Lawhorne’s family moved to Luray Avenue in Del Ray when he was two.
Both graduated from T.C. Williams High School, but since Linda was a year ahead, they didn’t know each other there. She lived on the West End, and he was in Del Ray.
“It was a small town. … Because I lived on the West End of the city, I never came past King Street. … I did not know how to find T.C. Williams [High School]. I had to be told how to get by Hammond High School and Seminary Bowling Alley, which I spent a lot of time at,” Linda said.
Though she was the daughter of a single mother and money was tight, Linda fondly recalls her childhood in Alexandria.
“… You hung around with the kids that you lived with and went to school with. It was a good place to grow up. I have wonderful memories of growing up here,” Linda said.
Lawhorne’s life changed forever at age 14 when he went on a ride-along with an Alexandria police officer.
“I loved it. I said, ‘That’s me. That’s what I want to do,’” Lawhorne said.
Because APD officers had to be at least 21, Lawhorne knew he couldn’t become a police officer immediately after high school. And, like Linda, finances precluded going away to college. He got his opportunity to work in public safety through a friend of his brother.
“When I was 16, a friend of my brother’s came by the house,” Lawhorne said. “My brother said, ‘Where are you working?’ [The friend] said ‘At the Hamlets as a security guard.’”
The friend replied that he had a uniform, car and radio and duties included knocking on peoples’ doors and asking them to turn down the stereo.
“I said, ‘That sounds like being a cop,’” Lawhorne said. “And [being a police officer] was always in the back of my mind. … That thought just never left my memory bank. It was always my dream to be an Alexandria police officer.”
Lawhorne got the Hamlets job, assisted by a recommendation from the APD officer who had befriended him years before.
Bumpy early years
After that first date at the Hamlets Cellar Club, the couple began dating exclusively almost from the start. Within six months they had moved in together – but it was too much, too soon.
“We made mistakes,” Linda said. “We were way too young. We both still had way too much growing up to do.”
They lived together for 2 ½ years, during which time Lawhorne became an APD officer and worked mostly nights, with few weekends off.
“We were like an old married couple at like 19 years old. It was dumb,” Lawhorne said. “At least she had enough sense to know and do something about it.”
Another contested memory is whether they actually broke up at that point.
“We didn’t see each other for a while after that. It was probably six or seven months,” Linda said.
“We never stopped really dating,” Lawhorne said.
“Yeah we did. We definitely did. We took a break,” Linda countered.
“Please note my objection to that,” Lawhorne said.
“You don’t remember that we literally broke up, broke up?” Linda asked incredulously.
“No. … In my heart I was always dating her,” Lawhorne said.
They got back together on Mother’s Day 1981, when Lawhorne knocked on the Finks’ apartment door.
“I was fixing dinner for my mom. It was right after she had her gallbladder surgery,” Linda said. “I said, ‘Do you want to stay for dinner and see my mom?’ And he said, ‘OK.’ And it was honestly that simple.”
Though they resumed dating, they took things slowly. In 1983, Lawhorne received a temporary APD assignment to community relations, which came with a normal Monday through Friday schedule.
“I think both of us saw it was an opportunity to get on the same page. If we didn’t have these other things distracting us from focusing on a relationship. … That’s what did it for me,” Lawhorne said.
“And some years and maturity,” Linda added.
Lawhorne proposed on Christmas Eve 1983, and they were married on May 12, 1984. The reception was at the Hamlet Club, where they had been on their first date almost seven years prior.
“We brought it all the way back around,” Linda said.
Because of their Alexandria roots, the Lawhornes were determined to raise their kids here. Their three daughters, Megan, Christine and Mallory, still live in Alexandria, Megan with her husband, Adam, and Christine with her husband, Aiden, and two children, Ryan and Harper.
After 27 years with the APD – including 19 as a detective – when Lawhorne decided to run for sheriff in 2005, it was a family affair.
“Once we got the family kicked in, Linda was the scheduler,” Lawhorne said. “That part of it was fun, was nice. The grunt part of it was fun.”
Almost 36 years after that 1984 wedding, Lawhorne can’t imagine his life turning out any other way.
“It’s been great. We’ve been blessed,” Lawhorne said. “I tell everybody, ‘I married up.’ I’m lucky.”
(More Tying the Knot: Gregory and Cheryl Hutchings share their 20-year love story)