A remembrance: Alicia Bowler Lugo
My daughter was 11 when she told me, “I want to meet Alicia.”
I had talked about my boss, but I guess I never realized how much, until my young Margaret wanted to meet her based on my larger-than-life descriptions.
Then in her early 30s, Alicia Lugo was executive director of Charlottesville’s Opportunities Industrialization Council (OIC), an organization started by an African American activist in Philadelphia, the Rev. Leon Sullivan, as a means to prepare the poor for jobs by providing basic education and GED programs, along with on-the-job apprenticeship training.
Operating out of the old Lane High School before it became the Albemarle Office building, Charlottesville OIC was a full-fledged training center.
My family had moved to Madison County in 1975. A year earlier, Alicia had established “OIC Outreach,” a program to serve rural places like Madison, along with Orange, Culpeper and Greene. At first, there were just three of us, Outreach director Julie, job developer Gordon, and the counselor, yours truly. But Alicia provided the vision behind our enterprise of helping the rural poor.
In Central Virginia in the mid-1970s, Alicia was unique among Charlottesville leaders– an African American woman serving as agency director. Other helping agencies in Charlottesville were run by men: MACAA, Mental Health Services, Charlottesville Social Services, the Housing Authority, and so forth.
Although I talked about Alicia at the dinner table, my children had never met her at our office on Madison’s Main Street. My daughter decided she wanted a special visit to Charlottesville to see this wonder-woman so important to her mother, and Alicia acceded. With Margaret, she was low-key and solicitous.
In our rural area, unemployment was widespread, but OIC operated under an innovative federal government job training program, The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). And we got results.
One success was an African American teen with talent, who today is a successful insurance broker in Richmond. Another was a white woman from the mountains who got her driver’s license, a GED, and a job at a nursing home to support her invalid husband and school-aged children. With just a little bit of help, these women– and many others– were able to succeed.
Thirty five years later, I remember Alicia’s eloquent outspokenness, which continued until her death. She could be charming and charismatic with us and our clients, but she also did not suffer fools lightly. She called something like she saw it, and in the 1970s, she helped us keep the faith.
Our biggest crisis occurred when our financial director embezzled employee Social Security funds to feed a secret drug addiction - a tragic story. Upon discovery, he was promptly arrested, and the embezzled funds were returned under terms of a bond. Yet, because the organization received federal funding through the Commonwealth, Virginia decided to withhold payments due under OIC’s contract, thus depriving the employees of paychecks.
Alicia called a staff meeting, explaining the crisis and giving her blessing to anyone who needed to seek other employment to support their families. Because of her calm in this crisis and her example of steadfastness to the cause, most of us continued to work without pay for a couple of months. We counseled clients, helped them find jobs, and cheered them through job-seeking.
One OIC board member, the late Col. Jim Price, got Morton frozen foods in Crozet to supply all OIC employees with frozen breakfast rolls and "TV dinners"– those frozen mélanges of meat, potatoes and (usually) green beans. Day after day, we ate the same thing. My family laughs about this now, but then, we were grateful for this free sustenance. Like other women at OIC, I was working because I had to help support my family.
Aside from Alicia, other heroes emerged, namely Charlottesville Mayor Francis Fife who with City Manager Cole Hendrix arranged a loan to cover OIC salaries while we awaited the ultimate release of federal funds by the state. In time, Virginia forwarded the money, and we soldiered on.
Alicia tried other paths. She ran a neighborhood store for a couple of years, but she always returned to educating people. Her final position, as director of Teensight, gave her the opportunity to work with young teen mothers, in her words, “to keep babies from having more babies.”
For many years, Alicia and her mother, Inez Bowler, lived on Brown Street next door to Rebecca McGinnis, another legendary Charlottesville educator. Mrs. McGinnis has been gone for over a decade, and Mrs. Bowler died last summer. Alicia’s mother, her daughter Nicki, and her sister Patricia formed the core of her family.
Some people you see in monochromatic tones, but Alicia was always in Technicolor. Yet, as our lives got busy, we saw less of each other. I have been missing her for a long time.
We last talked earlier this fall, as she was undergoing treatment for lung cancer, the result, she told me, of her lifelong addiction to cigarettes.
Charlottesville owes a lot to this wonderful leader.
The author, who served two terms on City Council in the 1990s, recently retired from her career as an environmental attorney.