Why Did VHCA Go Inactive in 1985?

Communities age, just like people. In 1985, the original residents of Virginia Hills were in their late 50s, and their children had grown up and moved on. While there had obviously been a number of new residents over the 30 year life of the community, especially due to an influx of military families in the 1960s, Virginia Hills had a large number of residents who had lived there since their homes were first built. Still, it was clearly a different community in 1985 than in 1955.

The decline in the number of Virginia Hills children was a key factor in the closing of the Virginia Hills Elementary School in the summer of 1982. In all the older parts of Fairfax County, schools had more capacity than students, and the County quickly consolidated students into fewer schools. That this was an extremely short-sighted policy can be seen in the school overcrowding and trailer classrooms today. While VHCA fought the closing of the Virginia Hills School, that effort was doomed from the start; in those days of an appointed School Board and a general lack of school system accountability to the voters, there was little leverage that the citizens of Virginia Hills could apply.

Finally, the decline in the number of children was also having a detrimental effect on the Virginia Hills Pool. In the early and mid-1980s, the pool was in terrible financial shape and looked as if it might have to close – as a number of neighborhood pools (such as the one in Wilton Woods) did. To stave off this closing, many of the leaders of the community took on duties with the pool and had no additional time for the Association.

None of these things explain why the Association became inactive, but they are necessary background for it.

One problem inherent in the Association itself was the way members were obtained and dues were collected. Starting in the 1950s, the Association's membership chairman recruited about 30 "block captains" for the neighborhood. Each block captain went out at renewal time and knocked on every door on that block to collect the $3.00 dues. In a neighborhood where everyone knew everyone and everyone's children went to school together, this was a great system, and membership totals were astronomical, 600-700 members from the 800 homes. Most of this membership was passive, of course, and Association meetings struggled to attain a quorum of 10 or 20 even in the best years. Still, that large membership provided the financial foundation for the Association's activities.

Such a system depended on an energetic Membership Director, lots of enthusiastic block captains, and a willingness of residents to join. By 1979, membership had declined to 250 members and the Association was having great difficulty recruiting block captains, meaning that some streets didn't get covered, or weren't covered well. Bob Marshall assumed the responsibilities of Membership Chair from 1979 to 1981, and, despite illness, his efforts kept the system functioning. George Beyer took over from Bob and served one year. After that, no one was willing to be Membership Director, and by March 1982, membership had declined to 150. An increase in the dues to $5.00 for the next year further hurt membership as this was an unpopular move with many members.

Residents from that time period report that the dues increase and the failure of the Association to keep the school open undoubtedly led many to question the Association's relevance. Another contributing factor to the relevance issue was that many of the Association's events, such as the Halloween parade and Easter egg hunt, no longer seemed to matter to those who didn't have children. Despite the Association's long and distinguished history, it had little response to the question, "What have you done for me lately?"

The first president to feel the effects of this reaction was Jim McCracken, who found it very difficult to recruit officers for the 1982-83 year. The Association dropped from a full slate of 11 officers in 1981-82 to 6 the next year, filling only the key offices. A search committee found only three officers for the next year, President Carol Bill, Vice-President Gary Schill, and Echo Editor Denise Schill. As the June 1984 meeting approached, no one was willing to step forward to be an officer.

Seemingly minor problems had plagued the 1983-84 year as well. Several issues of the Echo didn't get published. The renewal of the Association's corporate status apparently didn't get filed correctly. The former problem added to the decline of the Association's reputation. The latter was to have far more serious consequences.

In the face of the immediate demise of the Association at the June meeting, several residents stepped into the void. Gary Schill became president, with Diohn Benedict and Lester Kimball serving as vice-presidents, Alvin Anderson serving as treasurer, and Denise Schill remaining Echo editor. However, a major problem loomed on the horizon.

Gary Schill writes in the October 1984 Echo, "This year the State rejected our annual report and notified me by letter to suspend activities as an officer of the Association until a valid annual report is filed." This was not accomplished until March 1985. While the Echo appeared in November, January, February, and March, President Schill took the State at its word and held no formal or informal meetings until April.

Front page of the June 1985 Echo

April and May issues of the Echo contained pleas from the President and Editor for officers for the next year. In the June Echo, Editor Denise Schill wrote, "There will be NO ECHO for the next year, as no one has volunteered to be the new Editor." President Schill wrote, "The response to requests for people to hold offices in the association next year has been very limited. At this point, we do not have enough to run the organization. I will continue to seek interested people until the 1st of September. At that time, I will announce a meeting to either hold an election or to inform you that the will not be an active association."

In early September 1985, a flyer was placed in the door of each home in Virginia Hills asking for volunteers and explaining the consequences if no one came forward. When no one did so, the Association became inactive.

In retrospect, this history of the inactivation of the Association shows how fragile any citizens association is. Residents must find the association relevant and responsive to their concerns; it must do something to deserve their support. And the things that make an association relevant are moving targets. They change with the times and with the demographics of the neighborhood.

Equally as important, an association needs officers. Residents must step forward and assume responsibility for getting things done, both big and small. A successful association must have a mix of new blood and old in its officers. Voices of experience must be tempered by questioning the way things have always been done.

SOURCES: This history has been written by Doug Boulter based on Echo articles from 1978-1985 and oral interviews with residents of Virginia Hills from that time period.

How the Association was Reactivated in 1991

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