Carol Van Dam Falk needed a new drawer. The new president of the West Montgomery Citizens Association bought an antique kitchen cupboard at an auction, but one of the drawers fell out and was destroyed as she drove home on the Beltway.
At the same time, Potomac activists George Barnes and Ginny Barnes, who had worked with Van Dam Falk at West Montgomery, were encouraging her to take the presidency.
“They told me they liked my passion and everything, and I would say what was on my mind. I can tend to be rather blunt sometimes,” she said.
Van Dam Falk — who already was juggling family, part-time work and civic activities — was reluctant. So they struck a deal.
“I told them if George, who is a carpenter, makes me a new drawer, I’d do it,” Van Dam Falk said. “He fashioned a drawer that looked exactly like my antique.”
That was three years ago. Under WMCCA bylaws, when a board member agrees to become president, he or she first serves a one-year term as vice president and then one year as president-elect. Van Dam assumed the presidency earlier this month.
VAN DAM FALK and her husband Robert Falk, a nuclear engineering consultant, are both Wisconsin natives who moved to the area a month after they got married in 1985.
They have three children: Suzanne, 14, a freshman at Thomas Wootton High School, Katie, 12, a seventh grader at Robert Frost Middle School, and Ted, 9, a fourth grader at Travilah Elementary.
“I care about my kids and the air they breathe and the water they drink and their future,” Van Dam Falk said. “They’re probably one of the main reasons [I’m involved with West Montgomery],” she said.
“Many people assume that civic activists get involved to protect their own backyard and make sure a highway doesn’t come through. … But you know it’s more than that,” she said.
ASKING TOUGH QUESTIONS is nothing new to Van Dam Falk. She used to be a White House and Capitol Hill reporter for The United Press International Radio Network. After her third child was born, she gave up her job.
“I was like, ‘This is too much.’ I was kind of at the height of my career, but I thought it was important,” she said.
But if her name sounds familiar, it might be because she can now be heard on NPR. For five years, Van Dam Falk has worked part-time doing the top-of-the-hour newscasts on weekend mornings and filling in during the week. On the air, she uses the name Carol Van Dam.
“Because of Carol’s background at NPR, she’s not at all afraid to take on public officials,” said George Barnes, immediate past president of WMCCA. “She’s good at research and digging into things and finding out what’s going on. That’s a big advantage for West Montgomery.”
Van Dam Falk can't recall any incidents of things falling apart on air. “I have nightmares of that all the time, of the newscast just blowing up,” she said, but it hasn't happened. “I like the deadline pressure. I guess that’s why I'm in what I'm in.”
Van Dam Falk's ability to work quickly and improvise is a good complement to the experience of many of the other board members, she says. “A lot of people on the board have just a lot of years’ long know-how of … how the system works. I think they think what I bring to the table is just the fearlessness,” she said.
ONE PRIORITY FOR Van Dam Falk's presidency is to increase membership. “I really hope to gain some members. I really hope to get some of my neighbors and friends to join us because I really think we’re fighting the good fight,” she said.
The idea that groups like West Montgomery are simply contrarians is nonsense, Van Dam Falk said.
“We’re not just a bunch of naysayers,” she said. “If [there’s] a viable project and it’s something where they go by the rules… and they’re not trying to skirt anything, we’re not going to be right off the bat against it.”
“We want to do it in a logical way, we want to do it in a smart way,” she said. “We are always willing and able to work with developers. And for the most part I think the citizens group has a really good reputation for doing that.”
Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) is glad to vouch for that reputation.
“Historically [WMCCA] has been one of the most active, most effective, and most influential citizens associations in Montgomery County,” he said. “There has been a high degree of expertise and activity and follow-through, and I think they are very highly regarded and well thought of.
“It’s a tradition at this point,” he added, one that Van Dam Falk is extending. “Sometimes you get one president who’s very knowledgeable… and then it fades. But with WM they have basically stayed the course.”
Van Dam Falk’s involvement with WMCCA has a lot to do with why she loves Potomac.
“The whole reason that we decided to move here and live and bring up our kids here is that we did think it’s a pretty cool area,” she said. “The land is very pretty, you can see some open spaces, the parks are nice… and that’s what we’re trying to maintain.”