Greenbriar's David McLean Dawley, 50, died Saturday after a nearly five-year battle with pancreatic cancer, but the legacy he leaves his family will remain.
"One of the biggest lessons he ever taught me was 'life is beautiful,'" said his son Michael, 23, a junior at GMU. "Even at his sickest, struggling with pain, he'd get up every morning and watch the sunrise."
A longtime Chantilly resident, Dawley was well-known in the local area as the owner of Mitchell's Gardens, along Route 50, near F&M Plaza. He began selling plants and fruit in the late 1970s at The Marketplace in Annandale, later opening Great Plants Alive there.
Just before Michael was born in 1978, Dawley and wife Leslie bought the historic Mitchell Weeks House in Chantilly. "Until I was 12, I grew up in that house," recalled Michael. "The first winter, we didn't have any heat, just a wood stove. And there was no running water — my mom had to boil water for our baths."
Since that house was originally Mitchell's Tavern, when Dawley built greenhouses beside it in the mid-1980s for a new plant nursery, he named the business Mitchell's Gardens, honoring its history. He ran it until the mid-1990s, eventually renaming it McLean Landscaping because of his own middle name.
"He was very proud of that heritage — being a McLean," said his son. "His great-great-greatgrandfather, Wilmer McLean, built St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Alexandria in the late 1700s. The first shots of the Civil War went through his house in the Yorkshire area of Manassas so, to get away from the war, he moved to Appomattox — which is where the war ended. McLean is my middle name, too, to pass on to my kids."
The Dawleys lived several years in Winding Brook, moving in the mid-1990s to Haymarket, where Dawley owned a horse-boarding farm. Half of it is now being sold. "He didn't want to go without providing for his family," said Michael. "We were first and foremost in his life."
Indeed, a year ago, they moved to Greenbriar so Michael's siblings could attend Chantilly High. Katie is now 18 and a San Diego State freshman, and Daniel, 15, is a Chantilly freshman. Mom Leslie Dawley — David's high-school sweetheart and wife of 23 years — runs a flower shop in McLean.
David Dawley had his first cancer operation in 1997, and his odds of surviving it were minuscule. But his hung on. "He's been a fighter — he stuck in there the whole time," said Michael. Finally, though, he entered Inova Fairfax Hospital on Valentine's Day and died two days later. His loss is especially hard for his family, said Michael, "because he cared so much about everybody."
Still, he left a lifetime of knowledge with his children. Said Michael: "Before he died, I told him there's no schoolbook or teacher that could have ever taught me what he did about life, carpentry, electrical stuff, construction, plants and buying and selling property."
They also learned from Dawley's love of nature and music — and the general kick he got out of living each day. "He was a walking miracle, the man that had nine lives," said daughter Katie. "[He] once told me, 'You're crazy, just like me — don't let anyone stop you.' A close family friend said he spit in the face of what others ran away from."
When Dawley learned Katie would be attending San Diego State, he contacted her excitedly and told her he was going to take her there via sailboat, around the U.S., through the Panama Canal and into San Diego Bay. But when that didn't pan out, he instead bought a camper and trailer for her things and drove her cross country.
"Indirectly, my dad taught me to live every day like it was my last because, one of these days, it will be," she said. "I knew my dad was dying, but I thought he would be conscious to hear me say goodbye one last time. He fought long and hard, and it's time for him to meet destiny in a more peaceful place."
The night before their father died, said Katie, Michael told her his death would be a lot easier to deal with "if he wasn't so damn cool." Added Katie: "He wasn't your average bear."
Funeral services will be Saturday, March 2, at 10:30 a.m. at Truro Episcopal Church in Alexandria. Officiating will be the Rev. Fred Wandall of that church, along with the Rev. George Caldwell of St. Paul's Episcopal. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in the name, David McLean Dawley, to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network via www.pancan.org, or call 877-272-6226.
"He'd get up early every morning, have coffee and say, 'My angels are with me. It's a great day and I love life,'" said wife Leslie. And even though he's now gone, she said, "The angels are still here."