December 13, 2013

Vola Lawson: Happy Warrior, Great Friend

Vola Lawson
9/14/1934 - 12/10/2013

Vola, a treasured friend, died Tuesday night of cardiac arrest. I learned yesterday morning with the publication of her obituary in the Washington Post. We had one of our regular bridge games at my house last week, and we were scheduled for another next Tuesday. She almost always brought Willie, her beloved Jack Russell Terrier shown here in his favorite place: Vola's arms.

Vola and I met in 1956, when we had apartments in the same house in Georgetown. We became close friends, then kept in touch through our career-and-family years. In the past few years, we started seeing each other more often and rekindled the tight bond we'd enjoyed over half a century ago. I'm so glad we did.

I haven't had time to sort out my jumble of thoughts on Vola's passing, but I wanted to pay tribute today. The Washington Post obituary -- and many other media reports -- describe Vola the Warrior, the longtime city manager of Alexandria, Virginia, who fought for the poor and minorities, handling with vigor and grace the "good old boy" network and challenging the segregationist Byrd machine that had long dominated Virginia politics.

Here's the Warrior in her office:

Vola Lawson in the Alexandria city manager's office, a post she held from 1985 to 2000. She was reported to be the first woman to run a local government in the Washington area. (City of Alexandria)

The woman I knew and loved was the Happy Vola, as dynamic with her friends as she was in her work. These last years of our renewed friendship, she was badly crippled by arthritis. But you'd never hear Vola complain, even though the pain was evident with every step she took.

She was one of the happiest, most active people I've known. She once told me she had never had a depressed day. Sad, yes. Certainly when her adored husband and co-warrior David died. But never depressed.

She was having too much fun with family, her many friends, her beloved cat Faulkner, and Willie, the most recent addition to her household. She loved movies and co-authored a review of the year's best films for the Alexandria Gazette. She continued to work on projects that were important to her, like Alexandria's Walk to Fight Breast Cancer, which she (the survivor of a double mastectomy) founded in 1994, and the Animal Welfare League of Alaxandria, home of the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter.

Vola and Her Love Affair with Jack Russells
Here's Vola with her first Jack Russell Terrier, which for some strange reason she named Jack. Vola and Jack had a love affair that lasted 17 years.

Vola Lawson with her dog Jack outside Alexandria City Hall. A renowned animal lover, the city's animal shelter is named after her. (City of Alexandria)

Vola never expected to own another dog, certainly not a dog from anywhere other than the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter. But last year, she and other board members from the Alexandria Animal Welfare League visited an under-funded shelter in Richmond, where dogs were stacked in crates from floor to ceiling.

The shelter manager asked  if anyone knew about "Uggie." Vola -- inveterate moviegoer -- immediately responded, "Of course, Uggie is the Jack Russell from the movie The Artist." The manager said they had an Uggie look-alike and opened a crate near the top of a stack. The freed dog jumped out of the crate and into Vola's arms. That lucky dog hit the jackpot, and went home with Vola. She named him Willie, after Willie Morris, author of one of Vola's favorite books, North Toward Home.

Here's a reprise of the two lovers:

I loved having Willie accompany Vola to the house. After the initial shock of learning that Vola had died, I wondered what would happen to Willie. I wondered if I should adopt him, if indeed his future was uncertain. I quickly realized that my travels plans made caring for a dog impossible.

Vola When We Shared a House in 1956
I came to Washington in April, 1955, and first rented a room in the Hartman Hall boarding house on P St. just off DuPont Circle. In late 1955, college classmate David Richtmann arrived in Washington, and we rented an apartment in a house in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood. The large house had been converted into three rental apartments, one per floor. Dave and I had the second floor. Two young gals from South Carolina, Joanne and Sara, rented the first floor. Vola was on the top floor with a strange woman we seldom saw.

The rooms in each apartment opened onto a big central stairway, and we all quickly became good friends. We explored Washington together, and we we partied (often!) in the house. Friends from Cornell and Ithaca visited and camped out in our living room. It was great fun, but it only lasted for about a year. 

Here's Vola, a 22-year-old beauty and book-lover:

Here we are, making the ever-popular visit to the Great Falls of the Potomac. Behind Vola, the crew-cut "gentleman" in the middle is me, sitting next to Dave Shepherd, my childhood pal from Ithaca:

Here's a shot from one of our many parties. This particular occasion might show one of our many planning sessions for reenactments of the recently opened Broadway musical, My Fair Lady. The LP was a big hit in the house. That's me hiding behind the beer can (no surprise there). Vola is the second gal from the right.

Still Together, 57 Years Later 
All three of these 2013 bridge players were residents of the "Georgetown Fun House" in 1956. Marty Convisser, at right, was a Cornell classmate AND best man at my wedding on January 19, 1957:

R.I.P.  Dear Vola

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