Remembering the City's 'Right Arm'

Remembering the City's 'Right Arm'

Elizabeth Anne Campagna was born in 1919 while her father was attending Harvard Divinity School. For most of her childhood, she traveled around extensively while her father took senior positions in Baptist churches all over the South. Finally, he settled the family in Lynchburg — where Elizabeth Anne graduated from E.C. Glass High School and attended college at Randolph Macon Woman's College.

After graduating college, she went to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. where her lifelong passion for social work began.

"She used to tell a story about being in Kentucky about how she used to wait for a bus in the cold and all she had was this thin sweater," said Mickey Campagna, her stepson. "She said that it was really cold, but she learned how to just be cold. It was sort of a stoic thing that served her well throughout her life."

In the 1940s, she moved to Alexandria when her father was pastor at First Baptist Church Alexandria where the Downtown Baptist Church is now located. After graduating from nursing school at Garfield Hospital in the District of Columbia, she became a registered nurse. She attended church at the Church of the Saviour, which was founded by her brother-in-law. While teaching Sunday school there, she met the father of one of her students — a widower with a 5-year-old son.

"The legend is that I said 'Dad, you ought to marry this woman because she's great,'" said Mickey Campagna. "I don't remember saying that, but I hope I did because it's a great story. My father always used to say that I set them up together."

SETTLING INTO family life, Elizabeth Anne Campagna raised her husband's son and a daughter of their own. Then, in 1961, her father died. Shortly afterward, her husband unexpectedly died. Forced to make ends meet for her family, Elizabeth Anne Campagna went back to nursing. But nurses did not make much money in those days. So she tried a number of professions — including selling real estate.

"She wasn't very successful as a real estate agent because she was not good at selling things," said Mickey Campagna. "She was a caregiver."

Later in 1961, she was hired as the program director for the YWCA. She used her natural skills to transform the organization and create a new vision for community service in Alexandria.

"Rather than selling raffle tickets to raise money, she would call up the president of the Rotary Club," said Mickey Campagna. "She had this ability to see the big picture and figure out how all the pieces could fit together."

Of all the programs that Elizabeth Anne Campagna put together, one stands out to her stepson involving black girls who were lost in the shuffle of integration. While the black boys had sports, black girls had little to identify with during the early days of integration.

"She used to get a handful of tough black girls from the projects and lock them in the Community Y. She would stay up all night talking to them about jobs and the importance of not getting pregnant," said Mickey Campagna.

Even today, all of these years later, he says that he still runs into people at City Hall whose lives were forever changed by the kindness of his mother.

"I run into people all the time who tell me, 'When I was 15 years old and I was on probation, I had no hope, but now I've got this great job with a retirement and a family,'" he said. "It's amazing how that ripples through the community."

AT MONDAY'S annual meeting, Elizabeth Anne Campagna was remembered as a complicated woman with a heart of gold. Del. Marian Van Landingham, who received the Elizabeth Anne Campagna Award, took a moment to remember her friend.

"She had this baroque way of speaking. It was grand," she said. "She would say things like 'I'm trying to be dispassionate about this, but, as my late husband would say, You've never said a dispassionate word in your life.' She would tell me that if I really wanted to remember something that I should write in lipstick on my mirror. She was really the mother of Alexandria, and her legacy lives in the Campagna Center."

Mary Cosby, her sister, remembered Elizabeth Anne Campagna's sense of community involvement.

"We always used to say that she held Alexandria in the palm of her hand because she loved this city so much," she said. "The day that she died, the Alexandria Gazette Packet had a headline that read 'Alexandria Loses Its Right Arm,' which I've always thought was wonderful."