Civic titan Lucy Denney dies at 87

Lucy Denney, right, was among those (with Fran Lunney, Lou Ann Frederick and Cecilia Cassidy) honored Dec. 7, 2014, by the Alliance for Housing Solutions with the Ellen Bozman Affordable Housing Award.

[Updated to include coverage of May 5 celebration of life.]

Lucy Denney, a powerhouse on the Arlington political scene for generations, died May 1 after a battle with cancer. She was 87.

Four days after her death, much of the Arlington political establishment from the 1960s forward turned up to pay tribute.

“There’s nothing that Lucy loved more than a full house,” chuckled civic leader John Milliken as he surveyed St. George’s Episcopal Church during a celebration-of-life ceremony held May 5.

Like many in the room, Milliken had known Denney for the better part of a lifetime. They had met in 1966, sharing common cause in Democrat Clive DuVal II’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to unseat U.S. Rep. Joel Broyhill (R-10th).

By that point, Denney already had helped to shape the changing Democratic Party in the county, which until the early 1960s had been dominated by conservatives.

Denney was part of a new breed of Arlington Democrat, those who had come to the county after World War II and were interested in focusing on civil rights, women’s rights, housing and other progressive causes.

“She worked daily, year in and year out, for the election of public officials who shared those views,” Milliken said.

As a native of Louisiana who grew up in a time of rigid segregation, “she made it her business to do her part to end this injustice,” said her son, Charlie Denney.

“She dedicated her life to helping as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible,” her son said.

But political partisanship had his limits; Charlie Denney remembered when he was playing on a sports team at Washington-Lee High School four decades ago. One of his teammates was the son of Dorothy Grotos, a conservative Republican then serving on the County Board.

There they were, “putting politics aside, sitting together for the entire game, cheering on their sons,” Charlie Denney recalled.

(But it wasn’t always easy being the child of an activist; Charlie Denney noted that one year a day or two after Halloween, his mother informed her two children that they were taking their remaining candy down to the White House to distribute it to those protesting the Vietnam War.)

A few years ago, Lucy Denney and her husband, Gerry, moved just across the Arlington County line to Goodwin House in Baileys Crossroads, which has become a haven for retired Arlington Democratic leaders and activists.

Even as her health failed, Denney remained as active as possible.

“She never wanted anyone to feel forgotten or alone,” said Rev. Shearon Sykes Williams, who spent much time with Denney in the last stages of her life.

Even toward the end, “her sharp observations, wit and sense of humor were intact,” said Maureen Grayzeck, a niece.

“Lucy was the real deal,” Grayzeck said. “An articulate, bright, savvy lady. She would not hesitate to give her advice when asked for it . . . [pause for effect] . . . or not.”

Having served as a staff member in the office of U.S. Rep. Joseph Fisher (D-10th) from 1975-80, Denney went on to run the campaigns of a host of Arlington Democratic County Board contenders, including Milliken, Ellen Bozman, Mary Margaret Whipple, William Newman Jr., James Hunter III, Paul Ferguson, Jay Fisette and Chris Zimmerman.

“The people around her were extraordinarily loyal,” Milliken said.

Denney also had been active in a host of civic activities, from the Arlington Fair Housing Board to the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board to the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network.

In 2007, Denney was honored with a lifetime-achievement award as part of the James B. Hunter III Arlington Community Hero awards program, in 2011 she was saluted by the General Assembly on the occasion of her 80th birthday, and in 2014 she was named a recipient of the Ellen Bozman Affordable Housing Award from the Alliance for Housing Solutions.

In addition to her husband and son, Denney is survived by a daughter, Jane Taylor, and seven grandchildren. Interment will be held at Arlington National Cemetery at a later date.

In a sense, the last word went to Denney herself. The back page of the memorial-service program had a photo of her clad in a T-shirt with the tongue-in-cheek slogan “Nasty Women for Hillary,” based on a famous exchange during the 2016 presidential campaign between Clinton and Donald Trump.

Everyone in attendance thought it summed things up nicely.

 

 

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