A Lifelong Lioness

Mary Lou Dodge is a fun‐loving 91‐year‐old who lives in the same Lyon Park home that her family built in 1933 when she was three years old. We first met last year when I stopped to admire the stately oaks in her yard. Thus began a friendship between us that provided a window into Lyon Park’s history.

Mary Lou’s parents purchased their lot from an African American woman who owned several acres in Lyon Park. At that time, N. Fenwick Street had only four homes (there are now 17). The street extended only as far south as the current location of Long Branch Elementary School. Once the pavement ended, a path led south to a dirt road bordered by tall grasses, now known as Highway 50. Mary Lou remembers seeing horses from Fort Myer ride down this road, which ended at Seven Corners, the site of a Christmas tree farm.

On Sunday mornings, her family would occasionally drive west on the dirt road, then absent of houses or cars, to have break‐ fast by one of the many creeks that now flow under the high‐ way. They would make a fire, over which her mother would fry eggs and bacon on a skillet. During one of these outings, they met soldiers on horseback from Fort Myer. One of them gave her brother a horse ride, which he remembered for the rest of his life. For her part, some of Mary Lou’s fondest childhood memories are of her father reading to her and her siblings before bed. He loved Charles Dickens and would read them A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson.

Mary Lou’s father worked as a private secretary for a retired col‐ onel. During the week, he would walk to N. Pershing Drive to catch a bus to his office downtown at 17th and K Streets NW. With no sidewalks in Lyon Park in those days and few vehicles, he would walk right down the middle of N. Fillmore Street.

In Lyon Park, the countryside didn’t feel far away. A pasture with a barn and cows nestled in the block enclosed by Highway 50, N. Highland Street, and N. Irving Street, across from the current Thomas Jefferson Community Center. Several of Mary Lou’s neighbors kept chickens. A family lived in a rundown house where the elementary school now stands and Mary Lou’s parents would not allow her to wander to the area that is now the corner of N. Fillmore Street and Arlington Boulevard, as vagrants and drunks tended to gather there. A small, shallow und) flowed through Lyon Park along the route of the pedestrian pathway in Fillmore Park.

The neighborhood was much quieter than it is now, though she remembers hearing the rumble of her family’s 1933 Chevrolet before seeing the car come into view over the hill on N. Fillmore Street. She and her uncle’s family, who also lived in the neigh‐ borhood, both had “victory gardens,” or vegetable gardens used to supplement food rations during World War II. Coffee was always in short supply during the war and when people heard that the grocery store (or “sanitary store”) had coffee in stock, they would rush there to buy it.

During gasoline rationing, the Dodge family would maximize their gas mileage for summer vacations by sailing on the Norfolk Steamer ship from DC with their car on board to Seashore State Park (now First Landing State Park) in Norfolk. Mary Lou vividly recollects a vast lineup of warships positioned nose‐to‐tail along the mouth of the bay to protect against German submarines. At the time, Virginia Beach was off‐limits to bathers due to debris from sunken ships that had washed up on shore.

When Mary Lou was in the seventh grade, she would spend time after school with a friend who lived in the apartments that are now Cambridge Courts Condominiums. Before the girl’s parents would return from work, they would make prank calls to stores that sold cans of Sir Walter Raleigh brand tobacco. She remembers warning the cashiers: “Do you sell Sir Walter Raleigh in a can? Well, you better let him out!”

The neighborhood’s main street was N. Pershing Drive and the busiest intersection (Pershing and Washington Boulevard) housed a drugstore, a grocery store, and a gas station, among other businesses. Her mother shopped there and also frequented a farmer’s market at 10th and E Streets SW, streets that no longer exist. That area is now L’Enfant Plaza, bordered by a tangle of highways. There was also a swimming pool near Hains Point; it closed one summer due to a polio epidemic.

Together with her two brothers, Mary Lou delivered the Evening Star newspaper to earn extra money. The paper was much thinner than today’s newspapers, almost the size of a pamphlet. She showed me exactly how she used to fold one page into another to make it easy to throw.

Mary Lou’s grandmother would come from Tennessee to live with them for part of the year. She would listen to radio soap operas, gushing with love stories and drama, which Mary Lou’s mother prohibited her from hearing. Nevertheless, she found a way to enjoy the sappy, tearful dialogues of the radio program “Stella Dallas.” She would sit on the front step outside the door, which afforded her a place to listen out of her mother’s sight.

All of Mary Lou’s girlfriends married directly after graduating from high school and did not attend college. Mary Lou, how‐ ever, earned a degree in chemistry at the University of Mary Washington. The income from her paper route covered half of the tuition of her first year in college. Once she started her career as a chemist in Richmond, she would regularly take the
train home, a journey that cost $5.00.