Interview with John Beerman
Conducted by Linda Byrne for the Providence District History Project Providence Perspective
Today is August the 6th and I am here with John Beerman and he is going to tell us about, for the history project, the Providence District history project his perspective on Providence District and Fairfax County. Welcome John.
Linda: You grew up in Ohio?
John: No, I left Ohio when I was four and a half. I grew up in Alexandria. But my familiarity with Fairfax County was very limited growing up because I lived in Alexandria and went to school in Washington. And we would go through Fairfax County on our way to Ohio on our annual trips to visit relatives.
Linda: What year would this have been, approximately?
John: Oh, late thirties.
Linda: Um hum.
John: Mid-thirties, late thirties, early forties. And then even when I learned how to drive a car everything was oriented toward Washington, Alexandria and that area. It certainly wasn't Fairfax County.
When I came back from the Korean Was as a pilot I had graduated from Ohio State and I worked for the Ford Motor Company after the air force career. And then was transferred - promoted down here. And then I quit the Ford Motor Company and started going to law school and I went into an insurance business and um then I got active in local politics. I got, I joined the young Democrats and then I became the Fairfax County Young Democratic president. Then I was on the county steering committee and I was tenth district young Democratic Chairman.
And I had gotten married and had moved first to Annandale and then out into a place called Fairfax Villa which is on the other side of Fairfax City. And that was my first house.
And we had one child in Annandale and then two more children in Fairfax Villa a total of three children. And I lived there for about three years. And I got elected to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors as a Democrat representing the Providence District. And I served one term and did not run again cause I had three kids and I needed to make some money.
Linda: What did that pay at that time?
John: It paid, it started off at $3500 a year and then they kicked it up, we kicked it up to $7500 a year. And it was, cause obviously I had to work. It was a part time job but it took up and enormous amount of my time. And ah, I didn't have a secretary; I didn't have office. The office was out of my home or I could meet people at the court house or the county office building. Or could meet them in a restaurant or meet them at their home. But I had no paid assistance whatsoever. I received all my own phone calls.
And then at that time the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors and the Vice Chairman were elected by the majority party at the time. We had a seven member board. We had five Democrats, one Independent and one Republican. And I was the last Chairman under the old system.
The first two years we had two hold overs from the previous Board and they were elected Chairman for a one year term and then they resigned and the next guy was elected. Then we had three new guys and so we split it up to eight months each. And so one guy got it for eight months and the next other guy got it for eight months and I got it the last eight months. So I was the last Chairman. So myself and another fellow named Fred Babson we used to throw up the idea of having the chairman elected at large - which it is today.
Then the Chairman has no more power than we had but he served for a whole four year term and he had the power of the bully pulpit. And he also had the, being elected at large took a more effort cause you had to run in the whole county and it cost a lot more expense.
But in those days, if you were Chairman you also had a vote. In today you're at large and you vote in case of a tie. Unless that's changed and I don't think it has. And so actually in many respects you had a little bit more political power then you do under the present system.
And so Fairfax County when I got elected I think probably had a population around four hundred and fifty thousand. And I think Providence District had at that time - I'm guessing now - I think sixty five to seventy five thousand, maybe eighty thousand I'm not so sure it was quite that large.
Linda: And it was geographically larger than it is today.
John: Well it included: Vienna, Oakton, the Mantua section, it stopped at route 236, and went over to route 7, touched Tysons Corner on the southern side, and it went down towards and touched part of Falls Church didn't quite go there, and it use to include Fairfax City.
Kind of the unique thing that happened - there was a Supervisor named Jim Keith who lived in Fairfax City and Fairfax Town became a City. And under the state law, under the law he had to move out or resign cause you had to reside in your district. And he didn't want to move from his home so he resigned. And since it was less than two years the senior circuit court judge a guy named Paul Brown appointed a guy named Abe Brault as the Supervisor who did not run again. And so when I ran I had three opponents. There were four Democrats running and I got more votes than the other three combined.
And then I happened to be force enough to get the support of a diminutive little woman very quiet and very effective and she taught me a lot and got me elected. And along with her came all her group of pals; and all mostly women and they were very effective. Then she and I later talked Abe Brault into running for the State senate. I co-managed his campaign and he became the State Senator and later became the Senate Majority Leader.
Linda: And his last name?
John: Was Adelar Brault.
John: Brault and we got a street named out of that a road called the Brault Road. Well he got a Brault building I think and I think one of the highways is named after him. He just died a couple of years ago. And he had even gone to my high school Gonzaga incidentally.
John: I did not know him he was a lot older than me. And then um I talked a friend of mine who lost as a - running for Supervisor named Larry Short; I talked him into running for the state legislature and he got elected. And then I talked Herb Harris into running for the Board of Supervisors and he got elected and he also got elected to Congress. I was slinging my weight in those days.
Linda: That's great.
John: It was a lot of fun. But Fairfax County was growing rapidly and I'm doing this from memory it seemed like it was growing about twenty thousand a year. And it was just growing; growing, growing and we would have our Supervisor meetings on Wednesday - most always last ten, eleven o'clock. It we got done at nine o'clock we off done early. And sometimes they lasted till early hours of the morning. And one thing I remember quite vividly was that - that was the take over of the Alexandria Water Company. It was and I think it was at that time, but I'm pretty certain it still remains that way - it was the largest combination suit in the history of the State of Virginia. And finally they went to court and the final thing that had to be was whether or not the Board of Supervisors would vote in favor of the combination.
Well it was pretty obvious chairing the meeting and we started at 9 o'clock that morning and the next day it was around three o'clock in the morning and we were still going at it. And it was pretty obvious that there were three against it and three for it and I was the swing vote. And I hadn't made up my mind cause I hated to put a private company out of business. I mean they hadn't done anything wrong.
But I finally called for the vote and I voted for the combination; and my justification for it was that ultimately we were going to have to leave the Occoquan and get water from the Potomac. And the Potomac was owned by the State of Maryland up to the high water mark on the Virginia side. And we'd have to cooperate with them and with the city of Washington and that's a governmental decision more than a private company decision. I thought we'd have more horse power in doing that. Also we'd be able to take over those transmission lines at a lower cost than if we waited ultimately later to do it - those transmission lines would cost so much more money. So with that as my reasoning I voted in favor of it. Now as time has gone on I see how well the Fairfax County Water Authority now Water Company is being run I'm very pleased with that vote.
Linda: Very good, yes. Then there were the water wars this year. I don't know if you were
John: The what.
Linda: They sort of called them the water wars this year with Falls Church Water and Fairfax Water and um
John: Well we had a lot of those when Fairfax County Water Authority started there were a number of small water companies and they were gradually taking them over. And Fairfax City then and still has their own water company as does Falls Church City. But the rest is the Fairfax County Water Authority; and they own, they have most of the service area. And as this county gets bigger and bigger and bigger and water becomes such an issue and you need as much horse power as possible to be able to provide as good a service at as good a rate as you can.
I'll tell you something else that happened. The growth of course has just been enormous and Tysons Corner was changing and wasn't nearly nothing like it is today; but it was definitely getting large. And you could see the trend. And of course it's close to Washington and you had the 495 going by it and route 7 going by it so it was kind of a natural area. But no one contemplated it being the size it is today. That just wasn't in peoples thought processes.
But one of the other things I served on was the initial Fairfax - the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. And we met to determine the route of the metros that came into Virginia. Most of those were pretty simple decisions because like coming out 66 and coming down the railroad into Alexandria those were there. But I did not serve on the Metro Board because I was busy being vice chairman and then Chairman of the Board of Supervisors and I didn't need another job.
Linda: Right, and what year was that?
John: That was 1967 and 66 and 67, but they were very important and intense meetings trying to determine. There was some political pressure to put the metro down Arlington Boulevard, route 50 but it didn't go very far because we already had a dedicated right of way in 66 and plenty of width and so that was the way to go.
And so now the metro has gotten much bigger and now is expanding further and further and I'm glad we got it cause it's a busy operation. I've used it many times to go to Football games. If I'm going down town sometimes I'll just go down by metro cause when I get down there I can walk around and I don't have to fool around with my car. It makes it pretty easy.
John: I'll tell you something that interesting that was done. It was a very horrible situation that necessitated this but I had to go up to Philadelphia on some business for about three straight weeks. And I would fly back on Wednesday's and go back up afterwards and well I'd come home on the weekends. And I was president of a Lions Club called the Sever Corners Lions Club. It's down there near the seven corners area at route 7 and route 50. And there was a fellow in my Lions Club who was a principal of an intermediate school and he had I think four children. And my wife picked me up at the train station. I couldn't fly home because it was very inclement weather and they canceled the flying so I took a train down from Philadelphia. And she picked me up and we got into the car and we were going out to dinner. She had somebody to watch the kids. And she told me that this fellow that I knew, his wife who had some mental problems had gone down to a local department store called Montgomery Wards, which is no longer in business, and picked up a pistol and bought it and went home and shot dead her four children and herself. I didn't know her and I didn't know her children but it took my breath away and I just couldn't believe it.
So later at the Board of Supervisors I sponsored a pistol ordinance; said that nothing to do with rifle range it just said pistols and there was no registration all it said was that people who are criminals, had a criminal record, drug addicts, alcoholics, or people with mental problems could not own a pistol. That's all it said; and had a three day waiting period. And no registration though; give um three days to check um out. Well you're not going to check out anybody hardly in three days, but at least it put a stop up so if somebody's got the urge maybe it would calm them down. And believe it or not it got passed. Seven to nothing in conservative Virginia and it's probably one of the few pistol ordinances in the whole United States; it's the only one in Virginia that I know of. And I got a lot of flak from the National Rifle Association and everybody else. But anyway I got it through.
Linda: I think that's fabulous, yeah.
John: And then the first halfway house they had here in Northern Virginia. They have a lot of them now. But trying to get the first one was very difficult. And I sponsored that, I was the guy pushing that - so now it's called Woodburn House or Woodburn it's right on Woodburn Road right near the hospital.
Linda: Um hum. John: So they use to call me, they called, we had three people on the Board their first (last) name started with the letter B - so they called us the 3 B's; Beerman, Babson and Bradley.
John and Linda: Laughing.
Linda: Like Beethoven, Bach and Brahms the three B's in music. You've seen some pretty significant changes in this area in your lifetime - transportation, difficulty getting around can you talk about that and the farmland and how that's changed.
John: Well the difficulty in getting around has been an ongoing concern from my day until this day. It's worse today cause we've got a lot more people and we don't have significantly more roads. The thing I notice today in comparison to then - the Centreville District was sparsely populated; was very large area wise to come up with a population density equal to what I had in a much smaller Providence District. Today the Centreville area that we had then is in two Districts and it's pretty densely populated. And now it's run over and down to Prince William County and down to Fauquier County. And Prince William County which was not densely populated at all particularly in the western portion of Prince William is jammed and you as you can see 66 that was hardly anyone on it and now it's bumper to bumper in the mornings and the evenings.
There is a lot of talk today about expanding the metro. I think there's no doubt that we need to do that; that's the one thing that can be helpful. I see they are talking about having a streetcar on Columbia Pike. To me that's kind of a foolish venture. That's a lot of money spent and can you get people off their cars - can you get people to come and bring it on out towards Annandale. It's hard to get people out of their cars. They'll do it with a metro because it's fast; it's pretty long it goes right into the city. And you have a destination where a lot of people are going. But if you are going down Columbia Pike unless you're working there or shopping along there I think the cost and reward is not particularly dominate.
Linda: Um hum.
John: Ah, I have a - if they ever have and outer beltway that would help. Some way of getting the population further out - they are going to have some difficulties with existing subdivisions but that's the only ultimate solution. We've just got so much population that - nobody wants anything coming through their subdivision. So there's no easy solution to that.
Linda: No, you're right.
John: I don't have one.
Linda: Um hum. What were some of the other things you encountered when you were on the Board - any interesting cases?
John: Well we had lots of - we had an enormous number of zoning cases. Some days we'd have up to - some were simple zoning cases and some were much more elaborate - and the bigger zoning case then they'd allow more time for it. And we all may have 10, 12, 14 zoning cases. And sometimes they'd be unbelievably complex. And the opposition to some of these things was formidable.
But I remember when we voted on Burke Lake Center; that was way back when. It took a long time to get it done. But it was a new concept of kind of a mixed city like Reston is.
But Reston was the precursor of it all. That's something interesting to talk about is Reston. I had not run for the Board and this guy Robert Simon bought all this land. And he brought in Mike DiSalle who's the former governor of Ohio to be his kind of his man here to run it. And I think the biggest reason he got Mike DiSalle who had also been Mayor of Toledo was cause he knew how to run a city and he knew how to run a state and he also knew the current administration which was then the Kennedy administration. But Simon got into financial trouble pretty early on. Even though Reston today is close in - then it was considered out. It's hard to believe that you consider that out.
But he had all this front money he had to put up putting in roads and sewers and curb and gutter and water lines and plus clearing the ground and getting lots prepared. He was selling finished lots. So the front end financial cost was enormous and he couldn't handle it; so the board met with him, I met with him individually and we'd go out to his - I think it was called the Bowman House; an old house out in the Reston area. And his wife and he were a very classy act. And one of them played the piano - I think it was he. I think he had been chairman of the Carnegie Hall.
John: He was - they were very interesting parties the Board was invited to. We got invited to a lot of parties but this was a unique one. I remember after I got off the Board then he was in difficulty and Golf Reston took it over. Golf Oil Company and they were one of his lenders and Bob - let's back it up. I was still on the Board and there was a guy that I knew lived not very far from me; in fact he had gone to Ohio State. I did not know him there but he got married to a gal that I dated there at Ohio State and they lived about - oh, in a single apartment project in another building - I ran into them in church and I played some tennis with him. And he worked up on Capitol Hill and I forget what it was - he ended up working for Gulf Oil and Gulf Oil was headquarter in Pittsburgh and they got a man a very successful real estate developer and brought him down to Washington. And this young fellow called me up and wanted to see if the Board would meet them at a club down in Washington to meet with his boss who was a big friend of Bobby Kennedy's. They had gone to Harvard together and this guy named Ryan - I think his name was from Pittsburgh. And Golf Oil was being rumored to take over Reston from Robert Simon. But before they do that they want to see what the attitude of the Board of Supervisors - the governing body was. And of course we didn't want it to go down the drain; because if it fell apart who knows what would happen with that huge large piece of land.
So I got the Board and we met with them and after cocktails and lunch then Ryan was a hard bitten driven guy; he got up and told what they would have to do to make it go. And he said this is not a great investment for Golf Oil; we'll only be making about 3 percent on our money. And he said we can do better than that is we stick it in the bank. But we want to be good participants in Fairfax County and we don't want to throw money down the drain. So we're willing to take it over and back it as long as we've got support from the local governing body. Well everybody breathed a great sigh of relief and I remember saying well we're delighted that you're interested in buying it. I can just speak for myself but I'm very supportive of you guys coming in here and taking that over. And they did take it over. So that's how Reston thrived.
Part 2 John: One of the things I'm particularly proud of in Fairfax County is the exemplary school system we have. The School Board now is elected but back in my day it was appointed. Without exception every Board of Supervisors member appoint a very competent member to serve on the school board; and these are dedicated people. And fortunately since they were appointed and they weren't elected we had a vast reservoir of talented people. They could pick government employees who had been prescribed from running for partisan office on the school board unless they ran as an independent. And so we had a very, very good school board. And we consistently had good schools then and our schools today are still exemplary. We have many more school now but at that time they were building schools fast and furious and they are still doing that. In fact today I think they are more into rehabbing schools. Some of the schools have been enlarged and they have been modernized more - at that time they were just building
John: So, the school system here as I say is exemplary and has remained that way. And of course everything has gotten larger. But there are things like the Day Care centers and recreational facilities. And things like that that are much more plentiful. And at that time there weren't as many.
One thing I do kind of remember is I'm a golfer. They came up at budget hearings after my first year. And I remember when the recreation dept. and the Park Authority - Park Authority I guess it was and they came up "how come we don't have any public Golf Courses? I mean not everybody has the where with all or the desire to join a country club. And in a county that is growing as rapidly as Fairfax County and as wealthy as it is ought to provide Golf Courses and you ought to take a look at that. So by the time of my fourth year and I was Chairman that year we had our first golf course down I Clifton. And I went out there with Abe Brault who I succeeded and I teed off and there were TV cameras and everything and I said Abe I played a lot of golf but I've never been on TV. I said I hope I don't miss the ball. So now we have a lot of public golf courses. And they are all used a lot.
Linda: Yes. Well let's see you are also a member of the Northern Virginia Estate Planning Council - can you tell me a little about that.
John: Well I'm essentially retired now. I had a Commercial Real Estate and Investment and insurance business and I've been retired now for several years. And I still keep my membership in the Northern Virginia Estate Planning Council which is made up of CLUs and insurance trust offices and banks, tax lawyers and CPAs. So we have 8 luncheon meetings a year over at Tysons and have a speaker and it keeps me involved to some degree with my previous economic pursuits. The thing I am more involved in how is the Alzheimer's Family Day Center which is in Merrifield and is a place that people that have dementia can be placed by their care givers during the day Monday through Friday from I think 7:30 to 4:30. You go in there and they are fed and they have all kinds of programs for them. And I was able to put my wife there three then four days a week for nine months. They gave me a great deal of comfort and also gave me a chance to get some of my life back.
So we are now in the process of building a new facility cause we've outgrown our present by a lot. And it has taken a lot of effort and I'm - I'll see it through and hopefully in about a year and two or three months we'll have a new facility built. It's state of the art and at which time I think I will resign from the board cause I've been there for four years and I've put a lot of time into it. So I keep active and I still snow ski and I play a lot of golf and I do a lot of reading and I do a good bit of traveling. And one thing I will let you know is I did something pretty exciting a few months ago. In May I got five friends and myself and organized this trip and we went to Tanzania on safari for eleven days. And it was mind boggling; I've seen a lot of the World and I've done a lot of things but that's the first time I've ever been on a safari. And I saw a lot of animals I've seen in the zoo but I saw them in their natural habitat and there are many of them. And it's kind of an interesting experience for people who are interested in animals ought to take a look at that.
Linda: Oh, exciting. Well I thank you very much for this interview. And good to meet you.
John: Thank you.
Part 4 an aside.
He was sweet on this gal and he wanted to go out in Fairfax and he had a car and he wanted me to go and she was going to fix me up with a date. So what we did you wouldn't believe it - we drove from Alexandria our 236 all the way through Annandale clear to the Fairfax County old court house. On 123 turn left like you're going down toward the Occoquan and go down across the existing Fairfax County Parkway and you're going down almost to Burke Lake Park. And right before that the chief circuit court Judge's had a big old historical home there and had a boy and a girl and the girl was my friend's date. She's a pretty gal. Then we turned around and drove all the way back past the court house over to Vienna and picked up my date. Then we went someplace to go to the movies. I don't know where - it probably was in Vienna I don't know. There weren't very many movie houses. Then we went someplace to eat. Then we dropped off my date and when we reversed it went back and dropped his date off and went back to Alexandria. I remember saying to him we must have driven fifty miles. I said if you ever have a date with that gal again don't include me. Too far.
But the change that I recognize cause I went away to college at Ohio State and then I was five years in the air force as a pilot. And when I got back Fairfax County had started to grow. And my first job was with the Ford motor company in Michigan. So I actually was away from this area for five years of college for about eleven or twelve years.
Linda: Um hum.
John: Then I came back and lived in Alexandria and then I got married and I moved to Annandale. First I was in Falls Church for about three months and then I moved to a new apartment in Annandale for about two and a half years. Then moved out to the Providence District out to a place called Fairfax Villa which is back of Fairfax City that was my first house. And that's when I ran for office from there.