By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Carson Lee Fifer, an Alexandria Living Legend and longtime supporter of Carpenter’s Shelter, died on April 21 after an extended illness. He was 79.
The lifelong Alexandrian built a name for himself in the community as someone who, through his contributions to organizations like the homeless shelter, Chamber of Commerce and Christ Church, valued giving back and bringing people together.
Shannon Steene, the current executive director at Carpenter’s Shelter, characterized Fifer as a “connection point” to the community.
“He was definitely someone that was not afraid to get involved and not afraid to get others involved,” Steene said. “I knew that when Lee called, he was going to ask how the [Carpenter’s] board was doing, and he was going to ask what he could be doing. Those were as regular as rain with our interactions.”
According to Steene, Fifer originally joined Carpenter’s as a member of the board of directors in 1998, where he served for a number of years. During this time, he became chair of the fundraising committee that raised money for a campaign that eventually allowed Carpenter’s to move from a warehouse to the former DMV site on North Henry Street. Carpenter’s was on the verge of closing, at the time, but Fifer’s fundraising efforts led to garnering $600,000 in six months, which went toward improving new facilities and continuing its services to the community.
Fifer was instrumental in creating an event called Carpenter’s Cook-Off in 2001, which immediately became a hit and was an annual event up until the pandemic.
The event takes place at the Birchmere and features an afternoon of tastings from local restaurants, music and an auction all in support of Carpenter’s mission to aid those experiencing and at risk of homelessness. The cook-off events have raised more than $1 million to date.
Even after eventually leaving his position as chair of the board, Fifer continued to remain involved with the shelter, donating time and money and encouraging community members to do the same.
Charlotte Hall, managing director of Old Town Business Association and a friend of Fifer’s, highlighted Fifer’s staunch commitment to the city’s homeless population.
“Lee Fifer was a real gem who cared deeply about our homeless community,” Hall said. “Not only did Lee want to give them shelter, but he wanted them to get [them] an education, help them get a job, find a home and live a sustainable life.”
Fifer’s passion for affordable housing seeped into other areas, too. He was a founder and former chair of Affordable Housing Opportunity Means Everyone, which promotes workforce housing development and affordable housing. He was treasurer of the George Mason Foundation and helped establish a master’s program in real estate development at George Mason University.
A strong champion for education, which he called the key to self-sufficiency, Fifer played a major role in accumulating funds to provide educational scholarships for Carpenter’s clients. In late 2019, the shelter’s education fund was named after Fifer.
Fran Becker, former executive director of Carpenter’s Shelter, worked closely with Fifer to make the shelter what it is today. Becker, who co-chaired the fundraising committee to renovate the shelter, praised Fifer’s leadership, persistence in fundraising and commitment to transforming Carpenter’s into a renowned nonprofit.
“Because of his leadership, [Carpenter’s] morphed from being reactive, an emergency shelter, to being proactive, an award-winning nonprofit that ends homelessness through continuum of care programming,” Becker said. “His strategic leadership in programming and board development charted [Carpenter’s] onto its current successful course.”
But it wasn’t just the quality of Fifer’s work that will live on; it’s also how he interacted with those he worked alongside. Val Hawkins, a former board member of Carpenter’s, first met Fifer 60 years ago through his brother, who was fraternity brothers with Fifer at Brown University. Since then, the two worked on various projects, both work related and shelter related.
In Hawkins’ view, Fifer’s “tremendous sense of humor” lent itself to working through serious issues in a fun, relaxed way.
“He was a very special person. He had a unique talent that he could get people to work together to address issues, challenges, opportunities that we were facing, whether it be the homeless shelter or real estate, whatever,” Hawkins said. “And he made people feel good about working with him. That’s important.”
Outside of his work with Carpenter’s, Fifer loved animals – particularly basset hounds – as well as boating and playing music. According to Peter Lunt, for whom Fifer took over as board chair, Fifer was constantly inviting friends, family and colleagues on his boat to go fishing. Fifer was also a multi-instrumentalist.
“He was really kind of a renaissance man in many ways,” Lunt said. “He was so bright and well read and he was a musician. He played the guitar and banjo and he was in several different groups. He just had a lot of fun doing it.”
Born on Feb. 9, 1943, Fifer attended St. Stephen’s School in Alexandria through graduation. He graduated from Brown University and Virginia Law School. He also earned a master’s in business administration from George Washington University.
Fifer joined the law firm of Boothe, Prichard and Dudley, now called McGuireWoods, in 1972, focusing on land use and environmental law, real estate law, affordable housing and sports law.
His contributions in Alexandria include serving as chair of the Chamber of Commerce, on the board of governors of St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School and on the strategic planning committee of Christ Church.
In the 1980s, Fifer served on then Mayor Charles Beatley’s Multimodal Task Force, which studied transportation issues. He also served on the board of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, where he was general counsel for almost 20 years.
Fifer helped found the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau, now called Volunteer Alexandria, in the early 1980s, where he served as chair for five years and helped hire the organization’s first executive director. He was co-chair of the “Spring for Alexandria” Philanthropy Summit organized by Volunteer Alexandria in 2012.
In 2014, Fifer was named an Alexandria Living Legend for his myriad contributions to the city.
“The impact of Lee Fifer on life in Alexandria should probably be measured in truckloads. His generosity and service are almost overwhelming,” reads his Living Legends induction article. Steene said he’ll fondly remember Fifer’s desire to laugh and have a good time. One of the last times he saw Fifer was when Fifer came out to visit Carpenter’s and tour the facility.
Steene had agreed to drive Fifer home, and on the way, they stopped to pick up a prescription.
“When he came back he got into the car, leaned over and handed me a cookie and said, ‘Good guys deserve a cookie,’” Steene said with a laugh. “It was so random but charming all at the same time. It was just one where I thought, ‘How endearing.’”
Fifer is survived by his wife Sarah Savage, son Carson Daniel Fifer and his fiancé London Thor, daughter Meredith Savage and her husband Alex Prieu and niece Ellen Cassidy.
A service was held on Tuesday at Christ Church to honor Fifer’s life. Donations can be made to a favorite cause or charity to honor his memory.