He was Alexandria’s renaissance man: potato chip magnate and city councilman, singer and mayor, war veteran and environmentalist, hard-nosed businessman and historic preservationist, write-in candidate and popular choice. Frank Mann was the kind of guy who could look you right in the eye and tell you that you were wrong.
"How did this guy ever get elected?" asked Paul Gaffney, president of Monmouth University. "He was the Technicolor guy — folksy, crusty and funny as hell."
After serving the city as an elected leader for generations, Mann died last week at his Royal Street home. He was 86. Friends and former colleagues say that he will be remembered for a host of accomplishments: preserving the Carlyle House, saving the Lyceum from demolition, professionalizing the city manager’s office, purchasing Fort Ward Park for the city, creating the Department of Planning and Zoning, securing the city’s place as an All-America City, placing the city’s Old and Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places, negotiating to bring Metro to Alexandria and refusing a salary as mayor to instead create the Frank Mann Trust to fund training for city and school employees.
"Frank was instrumental in the integration of the city’s schools and parks," said Robert Sweeney, who delivered the eulogy at Mann’s funeral at Christ Church on Tuesday. "And yet he always managed to get the meeting over in a reasonable amount of time."
A native of Atlanta, Mann graduated from McKinley Technology High School and was a 1941 graduate of George Washington University. During World War II he served in the 5th Naval Construction Brigade, working with the Seabees to build what Gaffney called "the supermarket of the Pacific" in Guam. After being awarded the Bronze Star, Mann returned to American and became an executive with Mann's Potato Chip Co., which was founded by his father.
"Frank did not wait around in 1941 to debate the war," said Gaffney, a retired vice admiral in the United States Navy. "And like so many members of the Greatest Generation, he downplayed his contribution."
MANN’S RISE to power in Alexandria began at age 31, when he stood for election as a city councilman in 1952. Voters returned him to office in 1955, a time of growth in Alexandria when the city was acquiring huge tracts of land on the west side from Fairfax County. During his two terms on City Council, Mann and his colleagues wrestled with how to accommodate the newly acquired territory.
"People wanted to build houses," said retired District Court Judge Daniel O'Flaherty, who served with Mann on the City Council in the 1950s. "But we held the line on zoning decisions that were good for the people and not just the developers."
Mann resigned abruptly in 1957, citing the "press of business." But he soon returned to the public stage in one of the most bizarre political campaigns in the city’s history. With less than two weeks before the election of 1961, when Mayor Leroy Bendheim was running an unopposed reelection campaign as a Democrat, Mann jumped into the race as a write-in independent candidate. He told an Alexandria Gazette reporter that his last-minute decision to jump into the race was a "spontaneous effort" encouraged by people who were discontent with Bendheim’s leadership.
"Too often in the past have local citizens been confused, bewildered and frustrated by ineffectual leadership — leadership that often speaks but seldom delivers," Mann said during the 1961 campaign. "Many a vital item of interest to all taxpayers has been deferred, sidetracked or talked to death."
THE CAMPAIGN BETWEEN Bendheim and Mann was fierce, with each placing newspaper advertisements to attack the other candidate and his record. Mann accused the incumbent mayor of holding secret meetings, supporting "hit-and-miss" spending on the budget, contributing to empty storefronts on King Street and enacting "special favors for special groups." Mann faced down the Alexandria Democratic Committee and the disadvantage of not appearing on the ballot to pull a surprise victory, polling 4,122 write-in votes to Bendheim’s 3,345. But the coming years would see many clashes.
"Frank Mann and Jack Pickins and I opposed the plan to tear down all those buildings on King Street during the time of urban renewal," said Jack Ticer, who served on the City Council in the 1960s. "Needless to say, we lost that fight."
After running outside of the Democratic Party in 1961, Mann returned to the Democrats for a reelection in 1964.
The Democratic Party later nominated him to run for the General Assembly, and Mann’s 1969 campaign platform for a seat in the House of Delegates included advocating stronger anti-pollution laws, state assistance for rapid transit costs, increased state supplements for teachers pay and expansion of mental-health facilities. He was reelected as a Democrat twice in 1971 and 1973. But he eventually had a falling out with the party, making a comeback as an independent candidate for mayor in 1976 — with a campaign that lambasted the city government as big-government spendthrifts. He received more votes than Vice Mayor Mel Bergheim and Melvin Miller combined in a campaign in which one issue dominated the discussion: the city’s pocketbook.
"Property owners are being taxed to the hilt, yet our budget keeps getting higher and higher," said Mann after his victory in 1976. "Anyone who says that wasn’t the main issue in this campaign is just whistling Dixie."
DURING HIS third term as mayor, Mann negotiated an agreement to bring Metro through Alexandria, brought a minor-league baseball team and persuaded the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority to restore the Carlyle House. Although the authority had never before operated a historic building, Mann threatened to withhold funding from the authority unless it agreed to restore the 18th century building. It was the kind of leadership that was trademark Mann — cigar-chomping, in-your-face hardball tactics delivered with a mischievous smile and a seductive charm.
"He was a Southern gentleman, but he was also a hard-nosed businessman," said Ellen Pickering, who served on the City Council in the late 1970s when Mann was mayor. "I don’t think he has gotten the credit he deserves."
In an era before speakers were held to a time limit during public hearings, Mann ran a tight ship — often requesting that people get to the point. He demanded high standards and held people responsible for their actions. Unlike his longtime rival Charles Beatley, who had a much more laid-back style, Mann wanted the City Council meetings to be crisp and quick. It was a style that rubbed some the wrong way.
"Frank Mann is a smart politician, likeable and personally engaging, and his political skill can be used to get things done," editorialized the Alexandria Gazette during Mann’s last campaign in 1979. "On some occasions, however, the stern businesslike image he projects has been interpreted as arrogance."
MANN LOST to Beatley in 1979, then retired to private life. He remained active in charity and civic organizations like the Optimist Club, a group he helped found in 1946. He served in leadership roles for a number of organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club, Hopkins House and Southeastern University. A talented singer, he served as president and director of the Alexandria Harmonizers.
"He loved being on the stage," said Mayor Bill Euille during his speech at the funeral, adding that it was ironic that Mann’s death coincided with the passing of Boris Yeltsin, Jack Valenti and Mstislav Rostropovich. "I can just imagine how they’re all competing for attention upstairs."
Survivors include his wife of 32 years, Anita Mann of Alexandria; a daughter from his first marriage, Patty Lee Briggs of Laurel; two stepchildren, Amy Mann Fang of Arlington and Eric Izo of New York; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.