Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

It was partly the pandemic and partly aging membership that ended one of our most influential women’s groups.

The Organized Women Voters of Arlington County since 1923 had educated, lobbied and socialized with the local accomplished and energetic. I learned details this Women’s History Month as I was served tea by Jane Renfro, in her eighth decade in the Tara-Leeway Heights home where many organizational strategies were planned by her mother Sue and sister Nancy.

Many like-minded Arlington groups formed during the post-World War I prosperity (after women gained the vote in 1919), among them the similarly named League of Women Voters and the Neighbors Club (both still going).

The nonpartisan Organized Women Voters were not the sort who marched on the Capitol, Renfro said. But through regular luncheons with prominent speakers, the group over the decades weighed in on some of Virginia’s major transitions, including school desegregation and civil rights.

That is borne out in the hundreds of pages of meticulously organized files that Renfro and her late sister in 2019 gave the library’s Center for Local History.

OWV did not endorse candidates (except to promote females). The lunches (often at the Alpine restaurant) offered “an opportunity to keep up with civics” on taxes, energy and the agenda of the county board, Renfro said. “We made no distinction between liberals and conservatives, though members had their own perspectives. There were no extremes, but as an age group, we tended to the conservative side.”

Stalwarts on the rolls included former county board chair Leone Buchholz, Salvation Army director Nadine Clift, WETA founder Elizabeth Campbell, congressional wife Jane Broyhill, Del. Mary Marshall, county board member wives Lois Urbanski and Vera Casto, and county board members Mary Margaret Whipple and Ellen Bozman.

Arlington treasurer (now retired) Frank O’Leary and Del. Patrick Hope were “practically auxiliary members,” Renfro said. Four members chaired the county board.

Detailed “biographies” of OWV applicants (actually resumes) show lots of World War II contributions and church and PTA activism. The form asked them to specify their race.

During the national battle over the 1957 Civil Rights bill, Arlington’s OWV expressed opposition to Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater’s amendment removing the word “sex” from the groups listed to be protected by the new commission that included blacks, the aged, American Indians and the handicapped. The group pushed for continued use of trials by jury in discrimination cases. “Though a member of the weaker sex, I strongly support the masculine sex in its drive for `trial by jury,’ ” Sue Renfro wrote to Republican Rep. Frank Chelf.

During the 1960 battle over Virginia desegregation, the OWV balanced respect for state law with skepticism toward segregationists’ plans for private-school tuition grants, seeing a threat to Arlington public education funding.

Now in her eighth decade in the house she grew up in, Renfro attended Woodlawn Elementary and Kenmore Jr. High. The nurse practitioner in recent years published three “science fantasy” novels with rigorous research on genetics.

Back in the 1950s, Arlington was “a nice residential area, a local community,” Renfro recalls. “But somewhere along the line, it changed focus… to become what someone on the board called `Manhattan on the Potomac.”’ Citing debacles such as the unsuccessful Artisphere in Rosslyn and the so-called million-dollar bus stop, Renfro is not a fan of such “progress” toward the “upscale.”

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John “Til” Hazel Jr., the lawyer-developer known best for shaping Fairfax County land policy, died March 15 at 91.

Perhaps lost amid the 1960s-90s debates over his advocacy of rapid growth and the aborted plan for a Disney theme park in Gainesville—was that Hazel was raised in Arlington. The son of a surgeon biked or hitched to McLean during the Depression to work his family’s farm, the Washington Post noted.

In the late ‘70s Hazel was instrumental in setting up George Mason University Law School in Arlington (where a hall bears his name). That’s also his name on the auditorium of Virginia Hospital Center.