Even before she received a Drewary Brown Memorial Community Bridge Builders award in October, Holly Edwards was known for her care and compassion, and for bringing people who normally didn’t have voices to the table. The former vice mayor and parish nurse for Jefferson Area Board for Aging died January 7 at age 56.
Edwards was elected to City Council in 2007 and served one term.
“She brought a clear and unwavering commitment to the low-income community, to the minority community and to the public housing community,” says former mayor David Brown. “And she did it in a way that wasn’t divisive.”
Edwards was born in Washington, D.C., in a middle-class African-American community, and she said she worked to create that sort of village for her own four daughters, two sets of twins. She was married to Ken Edwards.
She had a degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education and was working at a homeless shelter in Washington in the 1980s when she decided to change careers and become a nurse. She worked as a parish nurse at Westhaven and Crescent Halls, and served as a program coordinator for the Public Housing Association of Residents.
Edwards had “an enormous amount of influence while on City Council,” says Brown. “She got the city to embark on the Dialogue on Race,” which led to the city’s Office of Human Rights.
“She really helped create an environment where people who were unaccustomed to being part of community discussions felt comfortable about participating,” says Brown.
Charlene Green, director of the human rights office, remembers Edwards primarily as a friend. “She’s very thoughtful, purposeful and community minded,” she says. “She was able to bring lots of different groups together because of her concern.”
Edwards worked on helping felons when they got out of jail, was concerned about Charlottesville’s high infant mortality rate and was a lifetime member of the NAACP, serving as second vice president to the local branch, says Green.
Edwards also brought together former mayors and vice mayors. “She thought, ‘Why not use that brain trust for the betterment of our citizens,” says Green.
Former mayor Dave Norris, reached by e-mail in Ghana, calls Edwards “a dear friend, a political compatriot and an inspiring mentor—to myself and many, many others. She spent her life advocating tirelessly for low-income residents, and even as her body grew weak in recent years, her spirit remained strong till the end.”
Norris recalls his last two interactions with Edwards: her planning a meal for homeless women at PACEM, and helping to create a new political caucus aimed at electing local candidates who are committed to equity and justice.
“This was very typical of Holly—minister to the immediate needs of those who are suffering, while insistently working to change the underlying policies and systems that either create or perpetuate suffering,” he says.
City Manager Maurice Jones also points out Edwards’ “deep commitment to helping people from all walks of life,” particularly the disenfranchised.
Says Jones, “I always looked forward to the way Holly would develop a poem at the end of our Town Hall meetings when she would summarize the issues raised. And I also enjoyed just laughing together about life. She had a delightful sense of humor. Ever since I learned of her passing, I keep thinking about her infectious smile. It really gave you an insight into the beauty of her soul.”
Norris notes that Edwards was a long-time vegetarian, but she wasn’t in-your-face about it. “Whenever anyone would ask her why she didn’t eat meat, she would simply smile that Holly smile and say, ‘I just can’t eat anything with a face.’”
Says Norris, ”Charlottesville will never see another like Holly Edwards, and we are all the worse for it.”
Edwards’ funeral will be held 11am Thursday, January 12, at Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church.