Gathered around the table in the noisy Mount Vernon Inn, it was business as usual for Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) and his staff.
Sitting to his right was Marcia Hanson, his self-titled ombudsperson for the past 19 years. Every time Hyland made a joke, Hanson answered with a swat to the arm and "Oh Gerry, cut it out."
The rest of Hyland's staff could only laugh and shake their heads. Two of the biggest personalities in Fairfax County were at it again.
Hanson, who has worked with Hyland since he took office in 1988, refused to let her boss and close friend throw her a retirement party. Instead, all she asked for was lunch at Mount Vernon, a place very dear to her heart.
Hyland and Hanson had a close relationship, forged after they met while she was fighting to prevent the Fairfax County incinerator from being built in her Lorton neighborhood. Hyland, unbeknownst to Hanson, was lobbying for it. He didn't tell her for years after what his position really was, only that he'd known he wanted her working for him.
"She was so intense," Hyland said. "I wanted her working for me, not against me. She was so driven."
Hanson said she had no background in local politics at all, only a strong sense of urgency in protecting the natural environment of an as-yet undeveloped Lorton. She was instrumental in organizing the scattered communities of single family homes and townhouses in the Lorton area and bringing them together for the Lorton Federation of Communities, which evolved into the South County Federation.
"We raised $40,000 in six weeks to fight the good fight," Hanson said. "In the end we lost, but we got the commitment for more recycling in the county, which was good."
LOOKING BACK, almost two decades later, Hanson said it's simply time to move on.
"I can remember the first day, I can remember the second year. It's all right here behind me, just here," she said, motioning over her shoulder.
But after a serious car crash earlier this year, when Hanson was hit by a large truck carrying several tons of gravel and police said it was a miracle she was left without broken bones, she knew it was time to say farewell.
"I had originally said I'd stay through the end of this term, which is next year," Hanson said. "But after the accident, I knew it was time to go. I don't belong here with big Volvo trucks carrying rock."
Hanson is retiring to a glass house she's having built on the Northern Neck of Virginia, a sanctuary where she'll be surrounded by the natural beauty that has been so important to her.
"The place I'm going to is how Lorton used to be, where if you see more than a couple of cars in a day it's a big deal," she laughed.
Brett Kenney, Hyland's chief of staff, said that the office will be a lonelier place without Hanson, who served as a mentor when he first came into work.
"Marcia's always operated behind the scenes to make things happen," Kenney said.
The relationship between Hyland and Hanson goes beyond the office and has become very personal, Kenney said. "She handles him like no one else because she knows her personally and professionally," he said.
Holly Lagrasse, Hyland's office manager, remembered a time when Hanson took on the Virginia Department of Transportation when it wanted to cut down an old tree in their right-of-way.
"She was determined to save it. She said she'd go out and chain herself to the tree if she had to," Lagrasse said. "All she wanted was for them to give her a few more days to find out if the tree was a real danger to the power lines. In the end, VDOT just cut a few branches off the tree and she didn't have to chain herself to it, but she was prepared to. She won, naturally."
Lagrasse said she's always called Hanson "an eco-warrior" for her passionate work to preserve the environment.
"I will miss her tremendously," she said.
BUT AS ONE door closes, another opens.
Hyland's new ombudsman is Tom Howard, who started working in the office as a receptionist in January.
A graduate of the College of William and Mary, Howard grew up in Annandale and had a job working as a real estate assessor for the City of Alexandria before joining Hyland's staff. For the past month, he has been working with Hanson to learn the pressing issues in the Lorton area and the southern part of Fairfax County.
"I've got a lot to learn but I hope people will contact me," Howard said. "Marcia's done an incredible job, so a lot of what I'll be doing is following in her footsteps."
Howard is quick to point out that he's not trying to replace Hanson, just to make the same connections in the community and be a good advocate for their needs.
"I think the whole area is interesting, starting with the reuse of the prison area. Mason Neck is fascinating," Howard said.
On Monday, Nov. 6. he began moving his things into Hanson's old office, right next to his.
"It's a little bit bigger, which is nice," he said. "I'll get used to it."
Kenney said of the 500 applications he received, it was Howard's that stood out due to his background in land use and community service.
"When he interviewed with me, his knowledge and energy were a breath of fresh air," Kenney said. "He was our top pick right away."
Hyland said he has no doubt that Howard will become as well-known and respected in the southern part of the Mount Vernon District as Hanson was, it'll just take a little time.
"If anyone can fill the breach, it's Tom," Hyland said. "He's very quick and when he starts something, he's very dogged to get it completed. He'll be fine."
Hanson's departure has left Hyland without the person who was a close personal friend of his family during his late wife's illness, a relationship that has lasted for many years.
"Marcia's become like a sister to me," he said. "Her sensitivity to the people of Lorton, her sensitivity to environmental issues and all issues that affect people and living things is a remarkable attribute to a special person. She has a vision of things being better."
During their staff lunch on Friday, Nov. 3, the jokes and quibbles between Hyland and Hanson were easy and free-flowing, while the rest of the staff admitted that this was business as usual in their office.
Despite the early afternoon hour, Hyland stopped the chatter from his staff in the middle of lunch and asked them to raise a glass of wine in toast of Hanson.
"You've made a difference here," he said, beaming at Hanson. "All I have to do is look at the situation in Lorton. It's been transformed. All of a sudden, it's the most eclectic place in the county and you played a very big part in how it all turned out."
Hanson only smiled and patted his arm. There was nothing to contest there.