2024-05-23 4:48 AM

Memorial Day 2024 Issue!

Guest Commentary: Lou Olom: Education Pioneer & Civic Leader Turns 100 Years Young

By Kieran Sharpe

Louis T. Olom saw the great value of rigorous education, democratic institutions and civic engagement, and he persistently pursued visionary objectives in each realm.

He sought out the best in K12 educational practices. From a conference in Princeton, New Jersey, Lou brought back to Falls Church stories of the wonderfully articulate International Baccalaureate diploma graduates who gathered there. He attempted to persuade a committee of local leaders that our schools needed to offer IB courses and the diploma program, but budget concerns were raised, as they often are in response to ideas for improving our local schools. Lou walked away, clearly asserting his conviction that the concerns were extremely short-sighted.

Perhaps those present quickly realized that Lou had offered a very solid case for IB. After all, he had served an earlier term on the school board where he earned a reputation for seeking the best in education for Falls Church. Or perhaps they quickly recalled that Lou had been a key organizer in 1959 and first president of Citizens for a Better Council (later changed to Citizens for a Better City). With Lou leading the charge, CBC drew strength from several factions in the City – Republicans, Democrats and Independents – and succeeded at replacing council members who gave too little financial support to the schools.

In any case, within a few days, Lou received a call to come back to the committee — the proposal to initiate an IB program would go forward.

Seeing that a wide range of students could thrive in IB, Principal Bob Snee and other administrators opened IB courses to any and all students. And the students’ widespread participation in IB led to a finding by Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews that George Mason scored at the top of the Challenge Index he had developed to rank the quality of schools across the nation. Also, IB was the typical level of program offered in high schools in foreign countries attended by the children of U.S. diplomats and overseas executives. Consequently, George Mason became a magnet for such students who returned to the U.S.

These factors greatly strengthened George Mason’s reputation in the region, and combined with the City’s small town character, many families decided to locate here. As a result, the City’s property values rose substantially higher than those of comparable properties just outside the City.

Within the past year, Falls Church schools have become the first in Virginia and the Washington area to have a certified K-12 IB program. Meanwhile, Fairfax County and other area localities are seeking to implement such an inquiry-based model, but are well off the pace set by Falls Church.

Lou sought to preserve the small town character of Falls Church, running counter to the strong urbanizing trends in the Washington area. He was active early in the reorganization of the Village Preservation and Improvement Society and served on its board and as President. His efforts to improve the City’s appearance ranged from streetscape designs with brick sidewalks along Broad Street to street trees that have become key to the City’s character and recognition as a Tree City USA. Lou was one of the few non-architects admitted to the American Society of Landscape Architects and attracted them to provide designs for projects here. He was also instrumental in Falls Church’s All-America City Award in the 1960s.

Lou’s activities as a civic volunteer in many ways were informed by the values and strategies he had put into practice in his Federal service career. Shortly after World War II, Lou recognized a need for the U.S. to counter the authoritarian propaganda of the Soviet Union. This propaganda threatened to undermine the economies and democratic institutions of many nations in Europe, Latin America and Asia.

As staff director of the advisory commission that monitored and moderated U.S. information activities abroad, Lou put the skills of an early student and implementer of content analysis to good use. Over roughly 25 years, he nurtured the highly respected journalists and corporate executives on this commission, helped to sustain a high level of bipartisanship on the panel, and worked assiduously with an often skeptical Congress to keep the commission and the agencies it advised adequately funded. Since the Soviet Empire crumbled not from military attack but from powers of persuasion, it seems that Lou’s activities played a key role in some of the successful outcomes of the Cold War.

The family and friends of Lou Olom invite the community to honor and celebrate his 100th birthday on Saturday July 8, from 2 to 4 p.m., at the Mustang Cafe at George Mason High School.


Kieran Sharpe is a Falls Church resident and former member of the Falls Church City School Board and City Council.


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