Over the course of more than 30 years in elected office, Frank O’Leary had a reputation for calling ’em as he saw ’em and letting the chips fall where they may.
And now, in retirement, the former Arlington treasurer is equally unfiltered, when it comes to issues dear to his heart.
And few, at the moment, are more dear to O’Leary than the effort to obtain the county government’s participation in funding renovation and expansion of the Arlington Historical Society’s Hume School museum.
“It is time for our local government to step forward. Every local government in Northern Virginia – except Arlington – has fully funded one or more local museums,” he said. “Alexandria alone funds three museums, and does so with a smaller population and financial base than Arlington.”
The remarks came earlier this month as O’Leary was presented with the historical society’s highest honor – the Cornelia B. Rose Jr. Award – at a dinner marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks and their impact on Arlington.
The historical society has proposed a top-to-bottom renovation of the late-19th-century Hume School, which it acquired from the county school system in the early 1960s but not renovated since. The estimated price tag for modernization: $1.5 million.
But in O’Leary’s eyes, renovation would be just a jumping-off point “for the creation of a first-class urban museum of which all Arlingtonians will be proud.” Funding an expansion in conjunction with a renovation will be the least costly option on the table, he said.
“Now is the time to act,” O’Leary said. “If not now, then when?”
The audience of about 150 people at Washington Golf & Country Club included three current County Board members – Libby Garvey, Takis Karantonis and chairman Matt de Ferranti. Those three, or any three, of the five-member board would be enough to authorize funding out of the county government’s $1.4 billion annual operating budget to support the effort, if they so choose, or to put the matter on a bond referendum and let the public decide.
(While County Manager Mark Schwartz was not in attendance, one of his predecessors – Ron Carlee, who served from 2001-09 – was. “I didn’t expect to be lobbied by Frank [for funding], but old habits never die,” Carlee said with a chuckle.)
Responding to a Sun Gazette inquiry, de Ferranti suggested that funding a portion of the renovation is not on the immediate horizon.
“Frank O’Leary is a friend and a good advocate,” de Ferranti said. “I am interested in his proposal, but do not feel this year is the right time to pursue it from a fiscal and economic point of view.”
Why? “We are still facing significant limits on both our operating and capital budgets due to COVID,” de Ferranti said. “We must first emerge over the coming six to nine months from the health and economic challenges resulting from the pandemic, and then considered the details of the proposal.”
O’Leary countered that there was no great rush – getting funding by 2023 or 2024 would do the trick – but that’s no reason not to start mulling over the proposal now.
The historical society has been presenting the award since 2014. O’Leary is the seventh to receive it.
“We are all so thankful for all he’s done,” said society president Cathy Hix, pointing to O’Leary’s efforts on behalf of a host of initiatives. She called him “a wise counselor, a great friend.”
Also honored at the Sept. 9 dinner:
• Local historian and author Charlie Clark was saluted as the historical society’s volunteer of the year.
• Grace Freitas was honored as winner of the society’s annual student-essay contest.
• Daniel Gessel, a student at H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program and a member of Boy Scout Troop 149, was honored for his Eagle Scout project, “This Is How We Say Thank You: Arlington and 9/11,” a documentary film that saw its first public screening at the annual dinner.