, 2015

Fleet named Irvington grand marshal

by Audrey Thomasson and Maggie Somerville

IRVINGTON—Alexander McDonald Fleet will be honored as the grand marshal to preside over tomorrow’s 4th of July Hometown Parade in Irvington.

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While most know him as the town’s former mayor, Fleet also was superintendent of Lancaster schools during a significant period in Virginia’s history.

He has been a fixture in Irvington a good portion of his life. His ancestors date from the earliest days of Virginia history when Henry Fleete joined Capt. John Smith on his second exploration of the Chesapeake Bay.

He proudly points out that Fleet’s Island (also known as Windmill Point) and much of the surrounding land, including Irvington and portions of Northern Virginia and Maryland, was once part of his family history. Today, well into his 80s, Fleet settles for a little piece of Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury to call home.

While he grew up in Richmond, his family kept ties to the area through relatives who remained, including the Stephens family of Tides Inn fame.

But it wasn’t until 1967 that he moved back and began down a long and sometimes rocky road in the school system. Fleet didn’t favor returning because he said the schools were not very good in those days. It was the reason his parents moved to Richmond.

He took the job of director of instruction for a combined Lancaster/Northumberland school division. Within two years, dual school boards decided to separate into two districts and Fleet became superintendent in Lancaster.

Before his seat was even warm, desegregation came to Virginia and he was ordered to integrate the schools.

“The judge gave me the choice to integrate the schools or he would do it for me,” said Fleet. “Well, I didn’t want the judge coming in to run our schools so I said I would do it.”

At that time, small schools dotted the county landscape. White children attended elementary schools in Lively, Weems and White Stone and high school in Kilmarmock. Black children attended elementary in Mollusk or Mt. Jean (currently the school’s central office) and high school in Brookvale (currently Lancaster Primary School).

One of the first things Fleet did was to promote Julian Allen Ball Sr., who was teaching government at Brookvale High. Ball became known as the “great soother” for calming citizens through the difficult process of integrating and combining the schools into three. Ball, who died last year, was Fleet’s administrative assistant, the equivalent to assistant superintendent, Fleet explained.

“We went to schools and churches to tell people about the integration process,” he said.

During the transition, he received a threatening phone call and several “friends” refused to speak to him, continued Fleet. “But they’re speaking to me now,” he added.

“We set up a good school system. Honestly.” He bragged that Lancaster students had the highest reading scores on the Northern Neck and teachers had the highest salaries.

“During my second and third year as superintendent, we built Lancaster High School.”

There were between 1,700 to 1,800 students in those days, at least 500 more than today.

“We built the high school for $2 million...It’s as tough to get money out of government today as it was then. We had to cut, cut, cut...which meant losing a 700-seat auditorium.”

It’s the only high school in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula without an auditorium, he noted.

A few years later, he was tackling another group of people over funding to build Lancaster Middle School.

“Retired people started moving into the area. We had to fight for funding because retirees didn’t want their taxes raised,” said Fleet.

While the regional technical school in Warsaw was his idea and was partially developed locally, he had to fight to win local support and participation for Lancaster students. “People thought the school was too far away,” he added.

After 18 years as superintendent, Fleet left Lancaster schools and become headmaster at York Academy for seven years before retiring and running for a seat on Irvington town council. He served on council for 20 years, including 14 years as mayor.

His accomplishments also include being one of the founders of the Steamboat Era Museum, supporting the developers of Irvington’s Farmers’ Market and serving as chairman of the county’s Economic Development Authority. He was named citizen of the year by White Stone Rotary and received the Liberty Bell Award from the Northern Neck Bar Association.

Recently, Fleet came full circle and served four years on the Lancaster school board from 2010 to 2013.

An active member of Irvington Baptist Church, Fleet said his grandfather was a Baptist minister and his father was lay minister. He and his late wife, the former Suzanne Gardner, had three children and he enjoys eight grandchildren.

“It’s been a great pleasure to serve my community in some capacity,” said Fleet.

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