Lilla Richards, a former Dranesville District supervisor renowned for her land-use acumen and community activism, died Sept. 22 at age 81.
Richards died of congestive heart failure at The Jefferson, a retirement community in Arlington.
Richards “was the embodiment of the ‘professional citizen,’” said former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11th), who served with Richards on the Board of Supervisors. “Whether president of the McLean Citizens Association or a Fairfax County supervisor, she never deviated from her moral compass nor her commitment to making McLean one of the most attractive residential communities in the country.”
Richards was committed to improving the quality of life for Dranesville District residents and involved in everything from the arts to the zoning code, said former Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine Hanley (D).
“During the time we served together on the Board of Supervisors, I appreciated her perspective, her perseverance and her dry wit,” Hanley said. “She made Fairfax County a better place.”
Lilla McCutchen Richards was born April 17, 1939, in the District of Columbia, the daughter of James and Emily McCutchen. She grew up in Arlington and in 1961 earned a degree in English and history from the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. Her grandfather, George McCutchen, was an economics professor there for 48 years, and a house on the university’s historic Horseshoe is named after him.
Richards was the first female student in the college’s engineering school, but later changed majors after receiving a poor reception from men in the program.
“There was a distinct difference in expectation,” she told an interviewer for a 2019 article published by the university. “There was still a hangover of the women students not being expected to be as intellectually involved. They were supposed to be there just to get married, which was not my goal at that point.”
Richards later became an editor and writer for the Economic Research Service; launched The Farm Index, a magazine for economists; and wrote for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Richards was elected to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors following a contentious campaign focused on the pace of county growth in 1987, defeating Republican incumbent Nancy Falck in an election that also featured independent candidate Robert Thoburn.
Four years later, when the electorate had soured on the slow-growth policies of Democrats under board chair Audrey Moore, voters sent Richards packing after electing Republican Ernest Berger in a race that also included Carole Herrick.
“I have always held Lilla in high regard for her dedication through such organizations as the McLean Citizens Association, McLean Citizens Foundation, McLean Project for the Arts, Old Firehouse Teen Center and Pleasant Grove Church,” Herrick said.
Former Dranesville District Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R) credited Richards for inspiring him to seek office.
“Lilla was very active in the community over many years and played an important role in the development of McLean,” he said. “It was during her term as supervisor that I first thought of becoming involved in politics.”
Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder in the early 1990s appointed Richards to George Mason University’s board of visitors, where she served for six years. Richards prioritized academics during that stint, and cast the board’s deciding vote against offering a football program at Mason, the University of South Carolina article read.
Richards also was a past president of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations and the McLean Citizens Association (MCA). Current MCA president Robert Jackson said Richards evinced a strong interest in and commitment to McLean.
“While our terms of service with the MCA did not overlap, during my first term as president, Lilla Richards would call me from time to time to make thoughtful suggestions,” Jackson said. “She also encouraged the MCA in its efforts to protect the interests of McLean residents during the re-planning of Tysons.”
Richards loved McLean and made many lasting contributions that improved the community’s quality of life, said Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville).
“She was an effective, no-nonsense leader who was always willing to take political risks to do what she believed was right,” Foust said. “No matter what Lilla did for our community, she did it competently, unselfishly and with passion.”
Richards helped found the McLean Citizens Foundation and aided the McLean Project for the Arts in finding a permanent home at the McLean Community Center. She also donated her archives in 2019 to the McLean History Portal, a virtual historical database offered by the Virginia Room at Fairfax Library.
Richards “was a land-use encyclopedia,” said McLean resident and historian Merrily Pierce, who formerly stored the former supervisor’s archives.
The Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce in 2016 presented Richards with its presented its Mary Kingman Pillar of McLean Award.
In her spare time, Richards enjoyed traveling and fishing, said her friend Jim Lawless.
“She seemed ladylike, but loved being out on an old boat in the Chesapeake Bay or in Cabo San Lucas or wherever she was, trying to catch the biggest fish she could,” Lawless said. “It gave her new energy. She was removed from everything else going on.”
Her husband, Stanley Richards, died in 2014. The couple had no children. Lilla Richards also was predeceased by her parents and two sisters, Charlotte and Emily McCutchen.
Richards will be buried at a later date at Pleasant Grove Church in McLean, which she helped preserve when she was a county supervisor.
“She was very forceful in getting injunctive support to save the church,” said Judith Mueller of McLean, who also has been active in those efforts.
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