Community leader Townsend Van Fleet dies

Community leader Townsend Van Fleet dies
Townsend Van Fleet, a retired U.S. Army colonel, served with various city groups and commissions. (Photo/Scott Collins)

By Olivia Anderson |

Townsend Van Fleet, a retired U.S. Army colonel and outspoken city advocate, died at his Alexandria home in his sleep on Oct. 17. He was 87.

Van Fleet was known in Alexandria for his strong and vocal opinions, many of which he expressed in the Alexandria Times’ letters to the editor section. He ran unsuccessfully for Mayor in 2003, and City Council in 2006 and 2015. Van Fleet also served on the board of the Federation of Civic Associations for 15 years, Alexandria Waterfront Commission for eight years and the Old Town Civic Association for three years.

Hal Hardaway, a former neighbor and city resident, called Van Fleet “a paragon of integrity and service” and said he was incredibly civically minded.

“[He] was the poster child for ‘Do the right thing,’” Hardaway said. “A kind and gentle giant, he was nevertheless firm when necessary, and his firmness was based upon facts.”

Van Fleet was born on Jan. 12, 1935. He graduated from West Point in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, and from the Army War College in Carlisle in 1976. He also earned a master’s of science degree in public administration from Shippensburg State College. Van Fleet served in the U.S. Army for 23 years, during which he managed the Congressional Affairs Office for the army’s chief of research, development and acquisition; he also worked as principal action officer on the Department of Defense’s program objective memorandum.

Van Fleet lived in Alexandria for more than 30 years.

Right after retiring from the army in 1981 as a colonel, he founded Van Fleet Associates, a governmental relations firm in Old Town aiming to help organizations “maintain a competitive edge by developing an active and influential role in the government decision making process and in creative business development opportunities,” according to its website.

Randy McDonald, a friend for 35 years, said Van Fleet was a “bigger than life” person who felt very proud of his Army background.

“Van learned duty, honor [and] country at an early age and was truly a part of the ‘Long Gray Line,’” McDonald said.

Van Fleet lived in Alexandria for more than 30 years, spending much of that time with the Old Town Civic Association. Yvonne Callahan, who knew him through OTCA, acknowledged that Van Fleet could sometimes be aggressive in his beliefs and opinions.

The two would frequently clash on issues, such as one particular house renovation in Old Town where Van Fleet loudly opposed Callahan on the use of hardiplank, even though the Board of Architectural Review allowed the manmade product.

“It kind of burned me for a while, and then I realized, ‘You know what? That’s Van,’” Callahan said. “I had to give him some credit when it was all over that he stuck to his beliefs, and that’s exactly what he should do.”

Callahan also pointed out that Van Fleet wrote a large number of letters to the editor over the years, never shy about expressing his opinions.

“He always cared for the city. That was his first and foremost thing,” she said. “ … He was an officer, of course, and wanted things done his way, and I’m sure that could get in the way of some people. But you had to know that he always cared about the city the most.”

Some of Van Fleet’s issues of concern, especially when running for City Council as a Republican in 2015, included economic development and decreasing the city’s debt and property taxes.

During his campaign, Van Fleet called on the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and Visit Alexandria to do more to foster commercial development and fill the city’s vacant office spaces, which the Times reported was 13.5%.

Van Fleet campaigning in 2015 with his team on Halloween.

“I think that we put $3 million into their coffers every year, and they do some good work,” Van Fleet said in October 2015. “However, in my opinion they’re not bringing in a lot of business development and increasing the revenues in the city, and that’s what I support. Between AEDP and ACVA, we need development. We’ve got 13.5 percent of our commercial space vacant, so we’ve got to fill those up. We’re better, but my goal is to bring that down to zero.”

But he also wrote about many lesser known issues, from saving historic trees to traffic control to the hazards of leaf piles.

In one of his last letters to the editor, Van Fleet weighed in about a petition to change the name of Lee Street. The street is thought to be named after Robert E. Lee, a commander of the Confederate Army who grew up in Alexandria.

“Please reconsider the proposal to rename this street. One cannot learn from history if it is eradicated,” Van Fleet wrote to the Times in October 2021. “All of this is on top of the fact that if this initiative is enacted by City Council, total chaos will result in the lives of those citizens who have to change their addresses on all their legal documents. A large task within itself. Choose wisely, Alexandria!”

Whether he was running for council or penning opinion letters about local issues, Van Fleet maintained a strong pulse on the city’s latest happenings. According to Frank Fannon, a city resident and friend of Van Fleet’s for the past 25 years, his opinions were not always well-received, but they were always filled with thought and care.

“Van Fleet’s passing is a loss to the many who knew him,” Fannon said. “ … Van loved his country, his Commonwealth and his city, and he served all of them well with passion and commitment as a private citizen.”

Van Fleet’s wife, Julie, died in 2013. Memorial service arrangements have not yet been announced.