Meyera Fran Ellenson Oberndorf passed away on March 13, 2015, in Charlotte, NC, as the result of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 74.
Meyera was many things to many people – a devoted daughter, a dear friend, a loving wife, mother and grandmother. But for the countless people whose lives she touched, she will forever be remembered as Mayor Meyera.
For 20 years, Meyera served as the Mayor of Virginia Beach. She was the first popularly elected Mayor, and popular she was, travelling every square mile of the city to make appearances at events large and small. Whether it was official dinners for international dignitaries or cookouts for local little leagues, Meyera was there, taking time to talk to the citizens she loved, flashing a smile bigger than her petite 5’0” frame.
Meyera was born on February 10, 1941, in Newport News, the only child of Louis and Hilda Ellenson. Family was always very important to Meyera, as was her Orthodox Jewish faith. She adored her parents and was close to the many cousins who lived in her neighborhood. Ballet and public speaking were among her talents, foreshadowing a career in the public eye.
In the early 1960s, Meyera studied at Stern College for Women in New York, where she met Roger Oberndorf, the love of her life, at a college mixer. After Roger enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, he and Meyera were married at the historic Chamberlain Hotel in Hampton on June 11, 1961. Meyera completed her education at the College of William & Mary and Old Dominion University.
The Oberndorfs settled in the Kempsville section of Virginia Beach as Roger entered civilian life as an engineer at the Ford Motor Plant in Norfolk. Parenthood came next as the couple welcomed daughters Marcie and Heide. Meyera tried her hand at substitute teaching but found her real passion when she joined the Virginia Beach Public Library Board in the late 1960s. Thanks to her pioneering efforts, the city’s fledgling and underfunded library program became a priority and a point of local pride.
Politics turned into a family affair for the Oberndorfs, with Meyera as the charismatic leader and Roger as her campaign manager and strategist. Meyera was the first woman elected to Virginia Beach City Council in 1976. Twelve years later, she made history again as the first directly elected Mayor, a position she held for four consecutive terms.
Meyera approached the job as the people’s representative, always standing up to the established male-dominated structure of city politics and putting citizens’ needs first. She advocated for a more family-friendly oceanfront complete with clean public restrooms. She helped the city weather the high-profile storm of Greekfest in 1989, when riots broke out on Atlantic Avenue during a gathering of black fraternities and sororities. This became an opportunity for Meyera to lead dialogue and institute policies to improve race relations in her city. In addition, she was instrumental in building the Lake Gaston water pipeline and developing the Town Center complex. To the delight of the woman who loved to read to elementary school students, the Virginia Beach Central Library was named in her honor in 2009. Meyera was politically active on the national scene as well, with several leadership positions in the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities.
Along the way, Meyera also served as a personal role model. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, she made her results public to raise awareness of cancer research and fundraising. She experienced a full recovery as the national press took notice, with Newsweek naming her one of the nation’s 25 Most Dynamic Mayors.
Her next role as “Nana” to grandchildren Lila and Joey was especially dear to Meyera’s heart. She proudly included them in city events and in official visits to Europe and Asia. When people asked about her grandchildren, Meyera always had a twinkle in her eye and a story to tell, like the evening Joey smuggled a Gameboy into a reception for the Crown Prince of Norway.
In recent years, personal challenges began to accumulate for Meyera. She lost Roger in 2012 when he died from complications from a brain injury. Her energy and spirit were dimmed by the slow, steady march of Alzheimer’s. Marcie and Heide made the difficult decision to move Meyera from her beloved Virginia Beach to live near Marcie’s family in an Alzheimer’s facility in Charlotte. Ever the crusader, Meyera was eager to make make her condition public, and to help spread the word about the importance of Alzheimer’s research.
It was her final act of public service. She spent a lifetime helping others while breaking through the glass ceiling, and her friends, family and the entire Virginia Beach community are all the richer for having Mayor Meyera in their lives.
Meyera is survived by daughter Marcie Oberndorf-Kelso, son-in-law Marty Kelso, granddaughter Lila Kelso and grandson Joey Kelso of Charlotte, NC; and daughter Heide Oberndorf of San Francisco, CA.
A service will be held at the ballroom at the Virginia Beach Convention Center on Monday March 16tth.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Alzheimer’s Association- 6350 Center Drive, Suite 102 Norfolk, VA 23502 (757)450-2405 or ALZ.org or Hospice & Palliative Care- Charlotte Region- 1420 E 7th Street, Charlotte, NC 28204 or donatehospice.com