Senior profile: Longtime activist Katy Cannady wears many hats

Senior profile: Longtime activist Katy Cannady wears many hats
Katy Cannady has lived in Alexandria since 1982. (Photo/Andrew Macdonald)

By Olivia Anderson |

Katy Cannady was just a kid when she attended her first rally for then Sen. Ralph Yarborough. She had tagged along with her parents to a church in downtown Fort Worth, Texas that was well attended, but not so much that everyone in the room couldn’t line up and talk to the politician afterwards.

When it was Cannady’s turn to speak, she told Yarborough exactly what was on her mind.

“He was a distinguished middle-aged man with lots of energy. I was impressed with that,” Cannady recalled. “So I said, ‘Mr. Yarborough, you should be on television to show people your honest face.’ He said, ‘Little girl, what is your name?’”

Cannady told him, and that moment marked the beginning of a long friendship between the two. Whenever they crossed paths, Yarborough would say hello and tell her where he’d most recently appeared on television.

Cannady, for her part, quickly became enamored with the world of politics – not just because of Yarborough, who still inspires her to this day, but also because of how passionately and frequently her parents discussed the topic.

“I think that’s how I ended up in Washington, even though I ended up doing lots of things that were nonpartisan political,” Cannady said.

A longtime resident of Alexandria, Cannady would later go on to serve locally with the League of Women Voters, Federation of Civic Associations, the Archeology Commission and Environmental Council of Alexandria, but she made several formative stops along the way.

Cannady was born in Texarkana, Texas in 1942. After graduating from high school, she enrolled in the University of Missouri for journalism, at her father’s request, to study a discipline she could “actually do something with.”

During the summer before junior year of college, Cannady made her way to Washington D.C. for the first time to intern with none other than Yarborough. Around this time, then Sen. Richard Russell organized several fellow southern senators to sign the Southern Manifesto, which would effectively prohibit integration. Yarborough, however, refused to sign the document.

Yarborough would go on to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and vocally oppose the Vietnam War.

“As far as I was concerned, he was always on the right side. … He took a very principled stance,” Cannady said. “I thought Washington was a terribly exciting place, and I wanted to come back.”

She eventually did come back in the mid 1960s, working for many years in the federal civil service as a writer and editor of training manuals for various agencies. Cannady’s favorite was the Bureau of Land Management, which cultivated her interest in land preservation.

Katy Cannady (right) and her sister-in-law Lena Herter Picker (left). (Photo/Connie Graham)

From topics like bird area rehabilitation to geographic-specific flora and fauna, Cannady said she was constantly learning something new.

“It ended up making me a lifelong conservationist,” she said.

A few years later, in 1982, Cannady moved to Alexandria. It was also then that Cannady joined the local League of Women Voters, where she served as president.

This landed Cannady in something of a predicament, however, because although she was interested in politics, working in the federal civil service back then meant that she had to remain nonpolitical.

“The rules were stricter when I first worked for the government in the 60s. They got somewhat more relaxed over time, but you were supposed to be a nonpartisan person, especially if you were representing the league in any way,” Cannady said. “You were not supposed to indicate if you were a Democrat or a Republican, and I was careful to follow the rules and stay out of partisan politics.”

Throughout her time in the league, Cannady said that she learned a great deal about Virginia politics. And although she generally kept her political opinions close to her chest, Cannady recalled a particularly memorable moment of “rabble rousing” when it came to the issue of then Gov. Douglas Wilder’s proposal to bring a football stadium to Alexandria in 1992.

A public hearing to discuss the topic was not set to begin until 10 a.m., but Cannady arrived at 8 a.m. to secure a speaking spot, since she knew it would be a long meeting.

“I had written out a speech and I was going to read it, but it seemed obvious to me that part of the game was to get the audience involved,” Cannady said. “Normally, if I speak in public I don’t yell … but since I had to get the room involved, [the General Assembly] had to understand that everyone in the room hates this idea, which was pretty much true.”

So, Cannady walked up to the podium in the middle of the Cora Kelly gymnasium and yelled her way through the speech. The crowd would cheer at the end of every paragraph, making it difficult for Cannady to finish her speech. Instead of reading her last paragraph, she ad-libbed the end of her speech in a race against the timer.

“The cheering crowd took up a good bit of time, but they served their purpose just as much as I did. I yelled, one more time, ‘Save the governor from himself!’” Cannady said. “ … It was one of the most rabble rousing days we had in Alexandria.”

The project in question, the proposed Jack Kent Cooke Stadium at Potomac Yard, did not end up coming to pass.

A woman of many interests, Cannady has served on a variety of boards, groups and commissions in the city, one of her favorites being the Archeology Commission.

Katy Cannady and Jerry Lewis, a friend from Texas, in her former Rosemont home. (Photo/Andrew Macdonald)

“All of it is fascinating: the real serious history of here and now and oddball history from the middle ages,” Cannady said, who considers herself nearly an expert on pre-Columbian Mexico after receiving a book from her mother at age 7 about Mexican history.

“I learned a lot about local history and became very interested in the preservation of our history. It’s so unique, so that was a passion of mine for many years,” Cannady said. She left the commission a few years ago.

These days, Cannady lives in an Old Town apartment, where she recently moved after selling her home in Rosemont. She still closely follows the happenings in Alexandria, expressing concern for the future of preservation.

She claimed the city doesn’t place a high enough value on preserving Alexandria’s history, for example. She is also worried about a lack of local and national emphasis on environmental preservation. In the city, she advocated for the increase of pervious surfaces rather than pavement in order to mitigate longstanding flooding issues.

“Every time we lose or take down a tree, it’s a tragedy,” Cannady said. “I would like our leadership to be much more dedicated to not chopping down trees. The preservation of history and the preservation of Mother Earth – both of those things really worry me.”

But there is a way to change this, Cannady emphasized: exercising one’s right to vote.

“It’s very important for all adult human citizens to care about what goes on in politics, especially at the local level,” Cannady said. “A lot of stuff can happen and you can be just totally unaware of it if you don’t pay attention and value the right to vote.”