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Pennino, 'Mother Fairfax,' Dies

For 24 years, Martha Pennino helped shape Reston into what it is today. She died Friday after a battle with Parkinson's disease.

As the number of homeless people began to rise in Fairfax County during the 1980s, Martha Pennino, then vice chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, did what came naturally to her — she converted her Reston office's conference room into a makeshift homeless shelter.

A former social worker, Pennino was known for her compassion and commitment to human services during her 24-year tenure on the county board.

Pennino, who was 86-years-old, died last Friday as a result of Parkinson's disease at Fairfax Inova Hospital.

From 1968 to 1992, Pennino helped guide Fairfax County from a bedroom community into the modern, developed society it is today. Her leadership helped establish the Fairfax County Parkway and the Dulles Airport Access Road and preserve the Occoquan Watershed. She also helped establish the Fairfax County Human Rights Commission and brought Metro rail service and cable television service into the county.

"She was a great leader and a great friend," said Jack Herrity, the former chair of the Board of Supervisors who served alongside Pennino for 12 years.

AS RESTON AND VIENNA'S representative to the county board, Pennino had a major hand in shaping the communities. Particularly in Reston, she leaves a virtually unmatched legacy of government services and institutions.

"She was possibly the single most consistent and significant force in shaping Reston," said Reston attorney Michael Horwatt, Pennino's longtime friend and advisor. "Martha had the vision to understand what this community meant and what it could become."

She was directly responsible for bringing to the Reston community parks, schools, police and fire stations, the Reston Regional Library, the Embry Rucker Community Shelter, South Lakes High School, Reston Town Center, Reston Hospital Center, the Dulles Airport Access Road and the Fairfax County Parkway.

"Reston wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her," said Linda Singer, a Reston resident who worked on several of Pennino's campaigns. "Bob Simon founded Reston, but she made it happen. Reston owes her a big debt."

SHE WAS KNOWN by many of her constituents as "Mother Fairfax" because she took such good care of the people living in her district, which was then called the Centreville District and now known as the Hunter Mill District.

"She worked diligently to make sure that every county resident could benefit from everything that Fairfax County had to offer," said Bonita Pennino, her oldest daughter.

Pennino's commitment to human services was commemorated in 1994, when the Fairfax County Human Services Center in Fairfax was dedicated in her name.

She was also regarded as firm supporter of equality, fighting against discrimination and for affordable housing in the county. The subsidized housing complex in Reston, Southgate Village Apartments, was one of several developments she helped secure for her district's low-income residents.

"Martha was a real champion of the most vulnerable," Horwatt said.

PRIOR TO BEING elected to county office in November 1967, Pennino served three terms on the Vienna Town Council, with one term as the town's vice mayor.

She retired from politics after she was unseated from the Board of Supervisors by Republican Bob Dix in 1991, though she did serve recently on the board for Fairfax Water.

Also, she served over the years on George Mason University's Board of Visitors, on the advisory board for the Northern Virginia Youth Services Coalition, and as president of the Virginia Municipal League.

In 1985, she was awarded the Tom Bradley Regional Leadership Award by the National Association of Regional Councils for her efforts to develop the region's first energy policy, the area's first car pool program and a fair share housing program. The following year, Washingtonian Magazine named her "Washingtonian of the Year."

"She was a force that really impacted the whole region," Horwatt said.

PENNINO SPENT her last years living in Heron House at Lake Anne Village Center.

She was frequently seen sitting out on the plaza at il Cigno's, greeting the many Reston residents who stopped by to speak with her.

"She would look out over the plaza and people would always come by and say hello," Singer said. "She just loved it. She was a neat lady."