Vesta Stevens Downer, 92, a longtime resident of the city of Falls Church, died at home of natural causes on November 22, 2016, with family by her side. Born in Chester, Nova Scotia, when her father brought her pregnant mother from Connecticut to visit the place of his birth, she became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. at age 21.
During the Great Depression, the family moved around Connecticut, due to her father’s series of jobs that included college professor, Congregationalist minister, chemist, schoolteacher, and farmer. Vesta attended a one-room, rural schoolhouse before gaining admission to Norwich Free Academy. She obtained a B.A. from the University of Vermont in 1945 and a Masters in Social Work from Smith College in 1950. After graduate school, she worked in Baltimore as a social caseworker and at the Arlington Mental Health Center.
She married Robert E. Downer, a congressional aide, in 1952. Settling in Falls Church, they had two daughters. Eventually, a new job with the Department of State led to a Foreign Service position for Bob, and the entire family moved with him to posts in the Philippines and Thailand. After five years in the Foreign Service, they returned to the same home they had lived in in Falls Church, and the girls attended George Mason High School.
While in Bangkok, Vesta started a much-needed drug-treatment center for American Embassy dependents. On returning to the U.S., she re-established her social work career, working at Crossroads drug-treatment center in Fairfax and then Woodburn Community Mental Health Center in Annandale, and maintaining a private psychotherapy practice. She supervised graduate students, was on the board for social work licensure, and was instrumental in securing health-insurance coverage for psychotherapy performed by social workers in Virginia.
Both before and after retirement, she enjoyed traveling all over the world with groups of seniors and ecological researchers. In 1995, as a member of the Older Women’s League, she attended the United Nations International Conference on Women, and while she did not witness First Lady Hillary Clinton’s “Women’s rights are human rights” speech at that event firsthand, she did watch it live on a closed-circuit television in another room.
For years, she would go every summer with a group that cleaned and maintained a cabin on the Appalachian Trail. She loved gathering with her daughters and their families at Bethany Beach, Delaware. She was active in the Democratic Party and a variety of liberal and feminist causes, and was president of the Falls Church Democratic Committee for a time in the 1960s. She was for a number of years a member of Emmaus United Church of Christ in Vienna, Virginia.
A devoted runner since the age of 50, she frequently entered women’s 5K and 10K races, often coming in first in her division. In her 80s and beyond, even after giving up running, she still could be seen faithfully walking her one or two miles around the block whenever the weather permitted. She was a prodigious knitter, providing many relatives with handcrafted baby blankets, and when there was no one she knew to give afghans to, she donated them to churches and homeless shelters. She was a crossword-puzzle devotee, an avid gardener, a voracious reader and an inveterate letter writer, often penning “gotcha” letters to the editor, chiding newspaper staff on poor grammar and usage, or expressing her political views in no uncertain terms.
Her family life was marred by tragedy: Her younger sister, helping with the World War II effort on the home front, was killed when the milk truck she was backing up a ramp at a farm overturned. Her younger brother died at 35 of a heart attack and two other brothers died in infancy.
More recently, her younger daughter, Ann Downer-Hazell, a children’s book author, died in 2015 of ALS. Although acquainted with grief, Vesta lived a full life and gave unstintingly both to those she loved and to those in need. She is survived by a daughter, Judith E. Downer (Mrs. Alan Gordon), of Rego Park, New York, a son-in-law, Ed Hazell of Somerville, Massachusetts, and two grandsons.