In a long, fruitful and storied life, making a run for political office represented just a small fraction of time. And for Sidney Dewberry, it also proved to be one of the few times he didn’t find success, even though he was proved right in his approach to some of the issues of the day.
Dewberry – an acclaimed developer and engineer whose eponymous professional-services firm has roots dating back to 1956 – died July 16 at age 94. Until his death, he remained active with the firm as chairman emeritus, a post he had held since turning over the chairmanship to a son in 2012.
Since its founding as a single-office, six-person civil-engineering and surveying practice, Dewberry (formerly Dewberry & Davis) has grown to a nationwide consulting enterprise, with more than 2,000 employees and 50 offices from coast to coast.
It was his background in planning and development that, in the 1960s, led to Dewberry’s being tapped to serve as a member of, and later to chair, the Arlington Planning Commission.
And in 1971, he decided to run for County Board as a Republican in a year when two seats were on the ballot.
Based on contemporary coverage in the Northern Virginia Sun, many of the issues of a half-century ago would seem strikingly familiar to those of 2022. Among them: housing, transportation and the appropriate pace of development in a county that at the time was still something of a bedroom community.
Dewberry, who had lived with his family in Arlington for 17 years when he decided to make the run, said during the campaign that Arlington was facing the prospect of “blight and decay” without bold action. But at the same time, he called for a cost-benefit analysis to see what the impact would be on Arlington and its residents from various degrees of urbanization.
(Something that critics of the current county government’s rush to bring more housing to the community also are requesting.)
Incumbent County Board Democrat (though nominally an independent) Joseph Fisher was seen as largely unbeatable in the 1971 race, leading the campaign for the second slot to boil down to Dewberry vs. Democrat-cum-independent Everard Munsey. The second Republican in the field, Franklin Harding, was seen by some as being less of a factor in the race, news coverage of the time noted.
The Democratic twosome appeared to take a more cautious approach to growth, accusing Dewberry during the campaign of being too aggressive. In an October preview of the race in the Northern Virginia Sun, Munsey also criticized Dewberry’s proposal to have a public entity take over the region’s flagging private bus companies. (Dewberry’s proposal materialized, as those companies were acquired to form the nucleus of the Metro system in those pre-subway days.)
The Northern Virginia Sun’s editorial page endorsed Dewberry “with enthusiasm,” but it was Fisher (18,021 votes) and Munsey (16,385) who scored success over Dewberry (13,714) and Harding (13,118). Munsey ended up serving a single term, and Fisher won election to Congress in 1974, defeating longtime incumbent 10th District Republican Joel Broyhill in a year dominated by the aftermath of Watergate and the Nixon resignation.
(Fisher himself was ousted in the 10th District in 1980 by Republican Frank Wolf, riding the Reagan landslide – one so big the Gipper even won the Arlington vote, the last time to date that a Republican presidential candidate has done that.)
As for Dewberry, he continued to support local Republican candidates but never considered running for office again, said Scott McGeary, a former chair of the Arlington County Republican Committee.
McGeary later would succeed Dewberry as vice rector of the board of visitors at George Mason University, an institution each actively supported. “He also was a major supporter of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance and other good groups,” McGeary told the Sun Gazette.
Born downstate in Pittsylvania County in 1927 and growing up on a tobacco farm with eight brothers and sisters as the Depression hit, Dewberry watched his father supervising bridge-construction crews in Southside Virginia and decided by age 14 he wanted to become an engineer, his firm noted in a statement announcing his death.
After a wartime and post-war stint in the U.S. Army, Dewberry attended Virginia Tech for two years, transferring to George Washington University and in 1951 earning a degree in civil engineering. He married his hometown sweetheart, Reva Anne Lenier, in 1950; they were married for 72 years until her recent death. The couple had three sons and a daughter, plus multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Dewberry firm remains a family-owned company that, until Sidney Dewberry’s death, spanned three generations.