Mildred DeBell came to Centreville in 1938 to teach first grade in the old, wooden, Centreville Elementary. Since then, she's become an invaluable part of the community, and now Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) has named her Sully District's honorary Lady Fairfax for 2003.
She and the other honorees will be feted, June 2, at Mike's American Grill in Springfield, as part of the Celebrate Fairfax festivities. Calling DeBell, 85, of Centre Ridge, an "obvious choice," Frey described her as "sort of the institutional memory of the community."
"She's been involved in almost every aspect of community life," he said. "She's done everything and knows everybody that shaped what the Centreville area is, so it was fun to recognize the elder states lady and the unofficial historian of Centreville."
Actually, said DeBell, history wasn't her favorite subject, growing up, but she's now her family's historian and is also hard at work documenting Centreville's past. An energetic dynamo who looks a good 20 years younger than she is, DeBell is always knee-deep in a project or three.
"I'm so busy, I don't know if I'll live long enough to do everything I want to do," she jokes. "Last summer, I [gathered] all these old letters from Granddaddy John Thomas DeBell and the siblings. He owned mines in Monterey, Mexico, from about 1910-13. I'm recording all the interesting things about what he and the siblings were doing."
What's neat is that her family's history is intertwined with Centreville's history. In the 1870s, her father-in-law's father, John Daniel DeBell, bought Sunnyside — 500 acres total, on both sides of Route 29 from near Centreville's midpoint, past Rocky Run. When John Thomas returned from Mexico, the DeBells ran Sunnyside as a dairy farm until the late 1950s.
And the house Mildred lives in is now abuzz with its sixth generation of DeBell grandchildren. "It was finished for John Daniel's 13th child to be born in, in 1886," she explained. "We moved it up here [near Centreville United Methodist Church] in 1968 from where the Centreville Regional Library is now."
She and her husband Stuart — who, beginning in 1952, served 16 years on Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors, including two terms as chairman — had three sons. John, 57, is a civil engineer with Burgess & Niple; Stephen, 54, manages Seville Homes; and Stuart, 60, owns Sully's Restaurant in Chantilly. The family also includes nine grandchildren and five greats — with a sixth on the way.
When Mildred first came to Centreville from the Shenandoah Valley, it had no sewer or water. But it had lots of service stations, three stores and a truckstop, and more people came here in the 1940s and '50s. "Our post office address was Clifton Station," recalled DeBell. "We had a Fairfax telephone number and we went to Manassas to shop."
In 1946, Supervisor Robert Dye built a drugstore/hardware store (the precursor to Hunter Hardware) at Old Centreville Road and Route 29. Then came a doctor's office, the Centreville Post Office (in 1947), an insurance company and an accounting office. Said DeBell: "That was Centreville's first mall."
Her own family ran another landmark — the Newgate Inn (in the Newgate Shopping Center) — for 26 years, until 1995. And in 1950, Mildred was one of the charter members of the Rocky Run Garden Club — along with Ellanor C. Lawrence, in whose name the Centreville park was preserved.
In addition, DeBell has been active in St. John's Episcopal Church since 1938 and used to direct its choir and play the organ. And she's nearly a charter member of the Xonta Club for Fairfax County executive and business women.
DeBell also loves to garden. "It keeps me going," she said. She's also taken care of her share of widowed family members, saying "Somebody's always been depending on me." So what keeps her so young and vital? For one thing, she has a great sense of humor and laughs a lot. And she always has something going on.
"I'm busy all the time with so many projects," she said. "I'm not happy to sit. I like my gardening and digging outside, and recording and organizing all this history keeps me occupied. When I was 7, I remember my uncle getting his first radio — in a great, big cabinet — and he let us little kids listen to it through earphones. And we'd see little, World War I planes fly over, going to New Market, and we'd get so excited. I remember seeing my first one and thinking, 'This is wonderful.'"
DeBell enjoys poetry, too, and has written several poems about Centreville, including verses about the old post office, St. John's Episcopal and the 50th anniversary of the Rocky Run Garden Club. And, of course, she's a doting grandmother.
Her new title isn't the first one Frey's bestowed upon her. On July 4, 1995, he proclaimed her the honorary First Lady of Centreville. Now, he's named her the Sully District's Lady Fairfax.
"I'm very honored and really pleased," said DeBell. "One of these days, I'll have to start acting like a lady."