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FairfaxRarely a dull moment for retiring Park Authority spokesman

Rarely a dull moment for retiring Park Authority spokesman

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In 21 years as Fairfax County Park Authority’s public-information officer, Judy Pedersen visited nearly all of the agency’s 420 sites, hosted countless community meetings about park projects and was the media’s go-to person during natural and human-caused crises.

“One thing I will say about this job is there are no two days that are alike,” she said. “Even after 20-plus years, it still feels fresh. There’s always adventure. Every day, I learn something new. That’s been the best part of this job.

Pedersen, who is retiring Dec. 30, will spend her last few weeks finalizing the department’s reorganization, which will combine about two dozen marketing and communications employees into one team.

She will be succeeded Dec. 16 by Susan Kalish, who has served for 16 years as public-relations director for the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation. Kalish, who will shadow Pedersen to learn the ropes, will serve as director of the Office of Marketing and Communications.


Pedersen also has held that new title for a couple of months, but remains a public-information officer at heart.

“I’m much more comfortable with that,” she said.

Originally from Los Angeles, Pedersen came to the Washington area to attend American University, then left to work as an afternoon-drive disk jockey for radio station WINX in Rockville. (She later earned a bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Maryland University College.)

She never dated people who called the station, but made one exception for her future husband. They will celebrate their 40th anniversary next July.

After working in radio in southern Maryland, she did general-assignment work for a local newspaper, the St. Mary’s Tide, then progressed to governmental coverage and finally became editor.

When the St. Mary’s County manager complained about media coverage, Pedersen suggested hiring a public-information officer. He hired her for the post a month later.

Pedersen was poached years later by Bay Media Network to run a cable-access channel, but the company went out of business. She then spent two years as communications director for Anne Arundel County, Md., a politically charged job. When the Fairfax County position opened up in 2001, she applied.

“I thought, ‘Parks. How hard can that be?’” she said. “Little did I know how interesting or how dynamic or how challenging a system this size can be.”

Journalists and public-information officers need similar skills, she said.

“You’ve got to be able to communicate, tell a story, be able to write and edit,” Pedersen said. “Mostly, it was an opportunity to really grow, to look at things from both sides and also to make it as easy as possible for reporters to do their job.”

While advocating for the Park Authority and giving journalists more context to balance their stories, Pedersen maintained her integrity.

“I never, ever lied,” she said. “I think the truth sometimes depends on your perspective. It can be a little soft, but nobody could ever pay me enough to really lie for them . . . The truth can be subjective, but a fact is still a fact.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) said Pedersen has been a “model parks employee and dedicated public servant” for more than 20 years.
“She could always be counted on to provide Fairfax County residents with the latest info on what’s happening at our parks,” McKay said.

Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason) said Pedersen is detail-oriented, adaptable and helpful to Park Authority leaders and county supervisors.

“For any Park Authority event where comments were required, Judy not only had specific directions [for] parking, logistics, refreshments, etc., but she also had an advance script prepared for every speaker, just in case they needed the help putting their remarks together,” Gross said.

Pedersen found apropos quotes so often that Gross “wondered if she had a well-used copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations open at all times on her desk!”

Her predecessor, Merni Fitzgerald, who subsequently led the county’s Office of Public Affairs, said Pedersen is leaving behind a strong legacy of leadership.

“The county’s park resources, programs and activities greatly benefited from her dedication and service,” she said. “But even more than that, her ability to look beyond her agency and work with others across the county’s communication infrastructure not only benefited the parks, but other county agencies and residents also.”

Pedersen’s open sharing of accurate park information has helped maintain a strong, trusting relationship between the county government and its residents, said Supervisor James Walkinshaw (D-Braddock). In Braddock District, she has outlined opportunities and challenges posed by major projects such as the Lake Accotink master-plan process and Audrey Moore RECenter renovation, he said.

Last July, when a rabid coyote began biting people at Lake Accotink Park, Pedersen and her team shared urgent information to keep the community safe, said Fairfax County Director of Public Affairs Anthony Castrilli.

“Her quick work likely helped prevent further incidents,” he said. “Judy was responsive, transparent and connected the community to the facts when they were needed most.”

Pedersen now lives in Calvert County, Md., and will not miss driving 86 miles to her office at the Herrity Building in Fairfax.

“When they were blowing up the Woodrow Wilson Bridge before they started the new one, I entered as many times as possible to be the person . . . to push the [detonator] button,” she said. “I didn’t win.”

Pedersen will stay busy in retirement. She and her husband are rehabilitating a house he inherited in Solomons Island, Md. She also hopes to enjoy a boat she purchased two years ago, but hasn’t been able to use, and spend time with two grandsons who live nearby.

She may do some radio work, write for magazines, keep volunteering at her synagogue, take morning walks and read newspapers leisurely instead of just skimming them.

“The other day, I said to my husband, ‘If I can just get through this week, I’ll be able to catch up with some other stuff,’” she said. “He said, ‘You know, you’ve been saying that for 20 years.’”

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