VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – Virginia Beach’s longest-serving mayor, Meyera Oberndorf, passed away Friday morning, the city confirmed. She leaves behind an incredible legacy.
For many years, former Mayor Meyera Oberndorf was Virginia Beach’s loudest, most effective, most believable cheerleader.
She began her rise as a library board member, moved to Virginia Beach City Council for 12 years, became the city’s first elected mayor, and then the longest serving mayor, for 20 years.
When Oberndorf was not yet a political force, she was once told by the powers that be — all men, smoking cigars in the back room at a steak house — that she wasn’t the right candidate to run.
Her longtime friend Drew Lankford remembers what happened next: “They said, ‘you are going to have problems getting on city council. One, you are a woman. Two, you are Jewish, and three, you’re too short. So, this is not your time.'”
Oberndorf then told them, “I really do appreciate that, and I’m going to take that to heart.”
Lankford said she then walked out, rode down to the municipal center and filed to run. Oberndorf would later say, “The nice thing, they are no longer around, and I am. I’m still too short, Jewish, and I’m still a woman.”
Long time Virginia Beach City Clerk Ruth Fraser started serving in 1978, and that was two years after Oberndorf was on City Council. “She was probably the most influential person in Virginia Beach, and the best public relations person we could ever have or pay for,” Fraser said.
Oberndorf loved Oceana, the military, and she liked to do unusual things.
“When the troops in Desert Storm were at war, she collected enough M&M candies to take them to the troops, and the ship took them,” Fraser said. “Three years later, a young Scottish girl came here to Virginia Beach, thanked her. She had the M&M’s that came from Virginia Beach.”
Fraser added, “No matter what her personal feelings were, she was always smiling, and always making other people happy and figuring out how to do something special for them.”
When the Greekfest Riots rocked Virginia Beach, it was Mayor Oberndorf who stood up to be the face of a city for the entire country and world.
“She was very concerned about the citizens when that happened,” Fraser said. “Very concerned about the city, and what our reputation would be throughout the world because she was very world minded.”
Mayor Will Sessoms remembers that too: “She reached out to everybody. I know she brought people together … I don’t think anybody can represent Virginia Beach as well publicly as Meyera. The bottom line was: be open, honest, and people could see that.”
Oberndorf’s long time friend Drew Lankford, who now heads the city’s public works department, said, “She understood politics 101. Get out here, talk to the people, listen, and let them know you do care. She wept, she hugged, she laughed with everybody.”
“It’s difficult because Meyera was a very strong woman, but she was soft at heart,” Fraser said. “She was a beautiful woman, but didn’t think of her beauty. She thought about what she could do for other people.”
November 5, 2008 was Oberndorf’s saddest political moment. She lost a hard fought election campaign for Mayor against Will Sessoms. It hurt her, it stung. Yet there she was on election night showing grace, and class, and dignity: “I have spoken to Will directly just a little while ago, and very sincerely congratulated him,” she said during her concession speech.
And Sessoms realized how much Oberndorf had to offer.
“I also made it clear I wanted her to stay involved, and she wanted to stay involved, so I look forward to working with Meyera in the upcoming years,” Sessoms told WAVY.com that night.
Sessoms and Oberndorf and an interesting relationship that in the end was built on respect, even in times of political opposition.
“When we disagreed, she would look at me, and say, ‘Will, why are you doing this?’ Then I would usually think about it and agree with her,” Sessoms said with a laugh. “I really wish we had not run against each other. I wish that hadn’t occurred.”
After that defeat, Lankford reminded Oberndorf what a real winner she was: “I said to her, ‘after that last election, people will remember your name like they remember the name Kellam. It will be difficult to do what you’ve done.'”
Sessoms said Oberndorf cared about the quality of life, a safe environment, bringing more people and business to Virginia Beach: “The Amphitheater, the 31st Street Hilton, Towne Center, she was a vibrant part of all that,” he said.
In April 2009, Meyera, the gentle lady who served on the library board, was honored by having a city library named after her.
In October 2012, her beloved husband, Roger, passed away. They had an amazing love for each other, and were always together. He was often referred to as “Mr. Mayor.”
In July 2013, when in the throes of Alzheimer’s, Meyera still was giving back. She promoted Project Lifesaver, a radio signal bracelet tracking device used by city first responder. It’s insurance in case those who are forgetful wander off, they can quickly be found.
On that day, WAVY News 10’s Andy Fox asked Meyera what she did to help others with Alzheimer’s, and how she lived with it.
“A group of people who were married to someone who has this problem, and I tried and tried, you know, to see if I could overcome this problem, and I wanted to see how other people are handling it,” she said.
That’s Meyera: always helping, always learning, always giving.
She passed away around 11 a.m. Friday. She was 74-years-old, a trailblazer and Virginia Beach’s dearest friend. According to Drew Lankford with the city of Virginia Beach, there is a service in her remembrance scheduled Monday morning at 11 a.m. at the Virginia Beach Convention Center.
Mayor Sessoms and other political leaders released the statements Friday, after learning of her passing — click here to read them.
Please leave your kind thoughts and memories for her family below.