Mensch: Former mayor Francis Fife dies at 95

Francis Fife in 2009 at Oak Lawn, the Cherry Avenue house his family has owned since 1847.
Photo Jen Fariello Francis Fife in 2009 at Oak Lawn, the Cherry Avenue house his family has owned since 1847. Photo Jen Fariello

If it seems like Francis Fife has always been an integral part of Charlottesville, for most of the 20th century he was.

“It’s hard to imagine a program here he didn’t have a finger in,” says his wife of 33 years, Nancy O’Brien, who was Charlottesville’s first female mayor. She remembers meeting him when he was working to put together the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority.

Fife, who turned 95 October 1, died October 16 from complications after a fall three weeks ago.

He served on City Council for eight years and as mayor from 1972 to 1974. During his mayoral tenure, council voted to create the Downtown Mall, seen as a risky proposition at the time, a vote from which Fife abstained because he was vice president at People’s Bank, now the Bank of America downtown. He founded the Charlottesville Housing Foundation, which became Piedmont Housing Alliance, and the Rivanna Trails Foundation. He also served on numerous boards, commissions and committees.

“He was passionate about justice,” says O’Brien. “He was passionate about housing, and he cared about people.”

Fife was born in 1920, and for most of his life—except for a stint in the military during World War II and grad school at Rutgers—lived at Oak Lawn, the 350-acre farm his family bought in 1847, according to his wife. He milked cows on the property during the Depression, and he told his pal John Conover, a former city councilor, about riding around Charlottesville on a horse, hitting a tree and falling off.

Buford Middle School sits on land that was once part of the Fife farm, says Conover, and the neighborhood called Fifeville is indicative of his deep roots in the community. “He never thought it necessary to live anywhere else,” says O’Brien.

He first ran for City Council in 1950 on the World Peace ticket and got clobbered, recalls Conover. Fife was elected to City Council as a Democrat in 1970.

He had a wry sense of humor and thought the funniest thing going was human beings, says O’Brien. “He could laugh at himself, and laughter was a very important part of our lives.”

She describes Fife talking with someone who did not agree with him on an issue, but that person would walk away smiling. “He was a good listener and fascinated with people, and that came through,” she says.

“He never viewed himself as an insider,” says Conover. “He challenged the status quo”—with the good manners with which he was raised. “He was an embodiment of old Virginia who learned to adapt to the new day,” adds Conover. “He had a sense things could be done differently,” even during the dark days of segregation.

Conover says his friendship with Fife was cemented during the creation of the Rivanna Trails, a private effort to create a trail system that circles the city. “We were not going through government,” says Conover. “We were just going out in the woods with sharp things making trails.” The city and the Rivanna Trails Foundation were sued in 2005 by a citizen who didn’t want the trail on her land. Fife later said if he had to do it again, he would have gotten easements.

“I think he needs to be remembered for his remarkable integrity and his environmental stewardship,” says City Councilor Dede Smith, who notes that he was a founder of the Ivy Creek Foundation.

“My favorite memory is just seeing him coming and thinking, ‘Boy, this is going to be nice to talk to Francis,’” says Conover. “Some people just light up your world.”

“He had an incredible way of looking at life,” says O’Brien, “a way of finding the humor, a way that was gentle and kind.”

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