It’s been 32 years since J Hamilton Lambert finished his decade of service as Fairfax County executive, but his impact on the history of the county and Washington region is evident.
During his decade at the helm, he:
• Enabled a pro-development (split between Republicans and Democrats) Board of Supervisors to green-light the county’s transformation from a sleepy suburb into an economic powerhouse.
• Revamped the county’s plan-submission process, enabling engineers certified under a new process to have their plans expedited.
• Arranged for financing of the Dulles Toll Road.
• Spearheaded a regional sewer-treatment agreement that improved local water quality.
• Helped preserve the Upper Occoquan watershed.
• Found creative financing for a proposed new governmental center and moved the project forward, despite heated public opposition.
• Hired women and minorities to fill high-ranking county posts.
Gerald Gordon, former president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, fleshed out Lambert’s life story in his latest book, “J’s Journey: The Life, Leadership, and Legacy of J Hamilton Lambert.”
(There is no period after the “J” in Lambert’s name and even Gordon does not know the initial’s significance.)
Commissioned by late developer Sidney Dewberry and several other people, the book details how Lambert and a few other local notables transformed Northern Virginia from sleepy suburbs into an economic colossus.
“The area was going to grow, and what he did was enable the growth to be balanced between business and residential,” Gordon said. “By doing so, he set the process in motion whereby the business community is paying the taxes to help offset the cost of public services for residents.”
While writing the book, Gordon found many of his approximately 85 sources echoed his own impressions of Lambert – and had precious little negative to say about him.
“I always thought he was like a mentor to me . . . like a father figure or maybe a big brother,” he said. “He had no pretentions. Whenever there was a spotlight to be shown on someone, J was nowhere to be found. It was always someone else who stood up and got the credit.”
Born in Leesburg in 1940, Lambert credited his family for teaching him solid values. From his father, who quit school to support his family after his own father died while enforcing Prohibition, Lambert learned industriousness, street sense and self-sacrifice. His mother worked mathematics-related jobs outside the home – unusual for women of that era – and stressed honesty and conscientiousness.
Both his parents died in their 50s and Lambert subsequently was raised by his grandmother, who taught him discipline and fostered his lifelong love of reading.
Lambert was a standout student in high school and hoped to attend college on a football scholarship. A player on an opposing team clipped him on a kickoff, and the resulting back and ankle injuries ended his scholarship chances and disqualified him from military service.
Despite having only a high-school education, Lambert became a planning aide/map draftsman for the Fairfax County government in September 1959, the first of his 22 jobs with the county. He worked up the ranks by wowing his superiors, and twice served as interim county executive before reluctantly taking the top job in August 1980.
Lambert resigned in late 1990 after fielding most of the public’s criticism over the new governmental center, in order to shield board members who were up for election in 1991. County officials later named the building’s conference center in his honor.
Beyond chronicling Lambert’s life and county career, Gordon’s book provides case studies for public-administration students and is chock full of colorful anecdotes and nuggets of Lambert’s wisdom and humor. By treating everyone the same, being a good listener and doing thorough research, he was able to accomplish tasks that had eluded more heavily credentialed people, Gordon wrote.
The late Adm. Hyman Rickover asked Lambert to serve on the Rickover Foundation’s board and he became its first chairman. Rickover wanted him for the top job, even though former U.S. presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter also were serving on the board.
Now called the Center for Excellence in Education, the group’s president, Joann DiGennaro, was among those who commissioned Gordon to write the book. She first met Lambert while chairing the county’s library board and said he was “humble, fun, precise and very fair.”
DiGennaro was not always happy with him, however. When Lambert one year proposed cutting the library system’s budget, she sent him a box with a live rat inside, which then urinated on his desk. Lambert laughed, gave the libraries their money and became friends with DiGennaro.
Lambert’s lack of credentials fostered his uniqueness and allowed him to perform in a way that “garnered unequaled esteem and genuine appreciation,” said former Fairfax County attorney Dexter Odin.
“Academically trained administrators think categorically of local government as one and its citizens as another category,” Odin said. “J saw things in terms of helpful and harmful behavior – not as a governing institution that serves the citizenry, but with the citizen as much a part [of] local government as its employees and elected officials.”
Lambert since 1991 has been executive director of the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation and was instrumental in protecting and growing that group’s assets, the author said.
Gordon now is a professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and said he enjoys teaching older students, as they have more life experience and can engage in deeper conversations in class. He also golfs, and likely will embark on another book.
“I have so poorly failed retirement,” Gordon joked.