By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Kerry Donley, former Alexandria mayor and Living Legend, died on the evening of July 13 from an apparent heart attack. He was 66.
A longtime resident of the city, Donley was known for being an ardent and devoted community leader – he served multiple terms as Alexandria’s mayor and vice mayor – as well as a banker and a family man.
In the preceding hours before his death, Donley had been delivering Meals on Wheels to needy residents, and in the days and weeks prior to that he had gone on multiple long-distance bike rides. His sudden death came as a shock to many community members, who immediately began sharing memorials, condolences and love for Donley.
“I’m still, like a lot of people, not able to really comprehend something that no one saw coming,” David Speck, a former city councilor and close friend of Donley’s, said.
Speck has been working on writing a eulogy to explain just what it was that made Donley special. According to Speck, it came down to his sincere dedication to solving problems and hearing all sides.
“It was this sense of ‘Here’s a problem, here’s an issue, here’s something that is confusing us. How do we fix it?’ I said the mantra was ‘Call Kerry,’” Speck said. “He was so broadly involved in every aspect of the community that you really could see the effects of his leadership.”
Former City Councilor Tim Lovain remembered Donley as a steadfast public servant and committed father to five daughters.
“Kerry was a great model as a strong political leader, as a citizen dedicated to helping those in need and as a ‘girl dad,’” Lovain said. “He will be sorely missed.”
Born Feb. 1, 1956, in Sioux City, Iowa, Donley spent his early childhood years in South Dakota before moving to Alexandria with his family when he was 7 years old. Aside from attending college at Marquette University, where he earned a political science major and English minor, Donley called Alexandria home for more than 50 years.
Early on Donley demonstrated an interest in politics, perhaps due in part to having parents that were senior staff members of former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern. John McCaslin, an author and old friend of Donley’s, recalled the first day he met Donley at his family home in 1972. Donley’s younger brother, Scott, had invited him over to swim in their pool, but McCaslin instead found himself in a peculiar situation.
“[I was] seated in the family’s rec room listening to Kerry recite verbatim Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And when he was finished with that impressive recollection of American history he turned, and I kid you not, to JFK’s inaugural address,” McCaslin said. “I always regretted Kerry not seeking national office, but our Virginia district has few congressional seats to fill and he was foremost and forever loyal to those who held onto them. I have no doubt whatsoever he would have risen to the top.”
Although Donley never ran for national office, he left an indelible mark on the City of Alexandria. It’s the place where Donley and his wife, Eva, raised their daughters and where he’s made numerous contributions over the years, from his stints as a city councilor, vice mayor and mayor. Donley was Alexandria’s mayor during the Sept. 11 attacks and helped lead the city through that day and its aftermath. He also helped attract the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office headquarters to the city and served from 2005 to 2008 as athletic director at T.C. Williams High School, now called Alexandria City High School.
Former T.C. Williams Principal John Porter, whose tenure overlapped with Donley’s for one year at the school, remembered Donley as someone who showed authentic regard for those around him.
“Kerry was a good friend whom I got to know well due to his service in local government and the nonprofit community in our city,” Porter said. “In addition to his knowledge of the city and professionalism, he brought a sincere caring and concern for those with whom he worked and an uncanny ability to interact with students.”
Donley was first elected to City Council in 1988, garnering the most votes among candidates to become vice mayor in 1994. He was then elected mayor in 1996 and served two terms in that post before stepping down in 2003. Donley wasn’t done with politics yet, however, and ran again for City Council in 2009, for the second time receiving the most votes to become vice mayor, a post he held for one term. In 2015, Donley announced that he would challenge incumbent Mayor Bill Euille, and both men lost the Democratic primary to challenger Allison Silberberg.
Euille, who previously served with him on council, expressed shock at hearing the news of Donley’s death and praised the former mayor’s longtime commitment to the city.
“He was a very kind gentleman, caring and a strong leader. He will be missed. Kerry was a team player and ensured that Alexandria was significant and respected within the region,” Euille said. “He was instrumental in helping to negotiate a settlement for a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, leading and advocating for the economic recovery after 9/11. I very much enjoyed working with him and serving as his vice mayor.”
Although Donley was a Democrat, he was respected by people on both sides of the political aisle. Republican Bill Cleveland served on council with Donley and was his vice mayor from 1991 to 1993. In an Alexandria Republican City Committee press release, Cleveland acknowledged that while the two often differed on policy, with Donley there was always a sense of courtesy.
“He was always respectful, thoughtful, and well-informed. He had outstanding leadership skills, truly worked to serve our community, and will be missed by all who knew him,” Cleveland said. “I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing and extend my sincere sympathies to his family and friends.”
Professionally, Donley worked as a banker for more than 40 years, starting in 1979 at Crestar Bank. He then was senior vice president of community serving at Virginia Commerce Bank until 2014, and most recently, senior vice president at John Marshall Bank.
Donley spearheaded the resolution for reconstruction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and directed efforts to fund Samuel Tucker Elementary School and Beatley Library, leading to his citywide reputation as a champion for economic development.
Donley also served on a plethora of nonprofit organizations such as the Democratic Party of Virginia, Virginia Municipal League, Center for Alexandria’s Children, Alexandria United Way, Alexandria Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancy and Carpenter’s Shelter, the latter of which he was instrumental in building up.
He received a lifetime achievement award from Volunteer Alexandria in 2016 and was named to Carpenter’s Shelter Wall of Honor in 2015.
In 2017, Donley was named an Alexandria Living Legend for his contributions and achievements.
Though Donley made a significant mark on Alexandria, Paul Smedberg, who served with Donley on council and as his representative on the Budget Financial Affairs Advisory Committee, called attention to the importance of Donley’s respect throughout the region as well.
“So much of what we do in this area we have to do with our regional partners, particularly on housing and transportation. Kerry did a lot of that regional work and represented the city very well with our regional partners and I know they looked to him for help and guidance,” Smedberg said.
According to Smedberg, the three aspects that struck him the most about Donley were his innate kindness, knowledge of city issues and pursuit of collaboration.
He added that although many residents had “very definitive” opinions of Donley and often disagreed with him, the former mayor was always honest, transparent and solution-oriented.
“So many times, people think everything is just black and white, and I think Kerry did a really good job trying to listen to people but also talk to people and having them understand that, ‘Look, this isn’t just black and white; it’s a really complex issue.’ That’s one thing I think he really excelled at,” Smedberg said.
Beyond public service, Donley enjoyed spending time with his loved ones. As he grew older, he also developed a passion for fishing, often spending mornings visiting Lake Cook and sending photos of any catches to friends.
“He’d get up early, go down for an hour or so, and was quite happy with the solitude of sitting there with his rod and usually catching something, and then quite proud to show off what he caught,” Speck said, laughing.
Donley’s family expressed gratitude for the outpouring of community support, remembering him as someone who made life “beautiful, easy and fun.”
“To us he was more than just a husband, father and grandpa, but also a teacher, moral compass, jokester, the biggest cheerleader, and, as he affectionately referred to himself, ‘the MAN,’” the family said in a statement.
They expressed a commitment to live by the message Donley wrote in a recent Father’s Day letter: “Your job going forward is to use your talents and your values to contribute to society, to instill in your children these same talents and values, and to live your lives recognizing that the world around you will be better because of you.”
Donley is survived by his wife, Eva Shamblin, five daughters, Kristin, Kaitlin, Colleen, Cara and Kelsey, and five grandchildren.
A visitation will be held at Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home on Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m., and again from 5 to 7 p.m. with a prayer service at 6:30 p.m. A funeral mass at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church is set for 11 a.m. on July 25 with a private interment to follow. Everly-Wheatley is located at 1500 W. Braddock Road, and Blessed Sacrament Church is at 1427 W. Braddock Road.