Jessie Thackrey, a beloved civic leader who was widely known for her extraordinary civic leadership as a founder of the City of Falls Church, the matriarch of the Falls Church City Public Schools and as the first female senior warden at The Falls Church Episcopal, died September 28, 2013 at her home on W. Rosemary Street. She was 100.
She was born Jessie Dean on a farm in Homewood, Kansas June 14, 1913 – just after Woodrow Wilson began his first term as President and just before the Great War began in Europe. It was an uncertain time in the nation’s history, but the fifth of John and Eva Dean’s six children was destined to make history of her own.
Thackrey’s local civic accomplishments in Falls Church date back to 1941, when she and her husband, Franklin, moved from Nebraska with their young family to their home on W. Rosemary Ln. in what was then the Town of Falls Church. At that time, their street was a dirt road without curbs, gutters or sewers. Water shortages and flooding were frequent problems in the town, and the aging, crowded schools were deteriorating. The town charter gave local appointed officials little authority to do anything about it, and no one in town was happy with the level of service the Town of Falls Church was getting from Fairfax County.
“I came from Kansas and when I look back I consider that our country school was really quite good and when we came here to Virginia, we expected everything to be that way and it wasn’t,” she said in a 2009 interview commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Falls Church City Public Schools. “At the time, they didn’t even have an 8th grade.”
The civic-minded Thackreys and other Falls Church citizens decided to take matters into their own hands. In 1948, after the town reached the required population of 5000, local leaders obtained the necessary legislation to form an independent city. Franklin served as chairman of the City of Charter Committee. A year later, the Falls Church City Public Schools formed, and Jessie found her calling in volunteer service. She was an active participant in 4H, president of the Thomas Jefferson PTA, Chair of the United Givers Fund, which provided school supplies, clothing and shoes to needy children, and she served as editor of several Falls Church City Public Schools newsletters for more than two decades. She was also active in the League of Women Voters, Citizens for a Better City and served on the board of Northern Virginia Community College, serving as Chair her final term.
Thackrey served on the Falls Church City School Board from 1962 to 1970, and was vice chair during her second four-year term. During her school board service, Falls Church became the first Virginia school system to offer kindergarten and the first Virginia city school system to voluntarily integrate its schools. She spoke of those accomplishments with great pride well into her 90s during her visits to local elementary school classrooms. She was especially fond of visiting students at Mt. Daniel School, where she shared old photographs and described what life was like when she was their age. There were fewer stars on the flag back then, few motorized vehicles on the road and no video games she would explain as students listened with wonder in their eyes. “We went to school at 9:00 and got out at four and I had to go 2-1/2 miles to school and I went to school in a horse and buggy,” she told a group of Thomas Jefferson Elementary students just a few months before her 100th birthday.
In the 1970s, Thackrey became the first female senior warden at the Falls Church Episcopal where she had been a member since 1941. She provided strong leadership at a time when the church was looking for a new rector.
In the 2006, after the congregation became embroiled in a bitter, five-year, headline-making split that led to a legal battle over property rights, Thackrey, the longest serving member of the church at the time, was called upon to provide valuable historical information as the court case evolved. She and the other Episcopalians exiled from The Falls Church worshiped in the loft of the Falls Church Presbyterian until 2011, when the court ordered the Anglican congregation to return The Falls Church and its contents to the Episcopal Church. Though she primarily used a wheelchair in later years, Thackrey was determined to walk up the stairs of the old church when she returned for that first service, Easter Sunday, 2011. She was 97 at the time and hadn’t quite recovered from pneumonia. But with the help of a couple of vestry members, she walked up the stairs and proceeded to her usual seat in the middle of the second pew. It was a symbolic gesture signifying the congregation’s long-awaited return home.
In May, Thackrey reflected on her life and her legacy to her community.
“I’ve had some sorrows, as most of us have, but I’ve had some wonderful times. It’s been great to be part of watching a city grow and the schools grow.” Of all of her accomplishments, she said there is one that stands out to her as the greatest. “My children. I’m so proud of my children.”
She is survived by her children Janet Daugherty of La Mesa, CA, Maureen Lischke of Victor, MT , Keith Thackrey and Sue Thackrey, both of Falls Church, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and many, many honorary children. She was preceded in death by her husband, Franklin in 1990; her son, Kent, in 2001 and her daughter, Karen, in 1945.
A memorial service will be held at The Falls Church Episcopal Church (the old church) on Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 3 p.m. A reception will be held after the service at the Fellowship Hall on the church’s campus. The church is located at 115 East Fairfax Street at the corner of South Washington Street (Highway 29) and East Fairfax Street. All are welcome.
In lieu of flowers the family suggests donations to: Falls Church Education Foundation, 800 W. Broad St.. Suite 203, Falls Church, VA 22046.