MISSION — After half a century working in the public eye, it’s unfair to just call Virginia Townsend an organizer, or a volunteer, or an activist.
Virginia Townsend is a force of nature.
The now 86-year-old Mission resident, who’s been nominated in The Monitor’s annual Women We Love honor, spent a good chunk of her life battering down the wall between the government in the Rio Grande Valley and the people it serves. She’s spent countless hours combing through records and sitting in tense board meetings, haunting Valley politicians as an infuriatingly well-informed nuisance and occasionally organizing a protest.
Even now, when she’s put most of her rabble-rousing activism behind her, Virginia is a singular person to meet with a personality that combines salt of the earth manners with fiery tenacity.
Virginia was born in San Antonio in 1934 and came to the Valley soon after. She grew up in the PSJA area and says her family lived in the poorest house on the north side of Alamo.
“I loved it. My favorite was Alamo, but that’s whenever I was little, and you could walk through the alleys and they were all grassed over, under the trees. It was just a beautiful place to grow up. We were very, very poor, but I never knew it,” she said.
Virginia was a single child.
“That’s why I said, ‘I’m gonna have 10 kids,” she laughed.
Virginia would later fulfill that promise after marrying her husband Pat.
“Pat was from McAllen, and I said ‘I will never date anybody from McAllen. They’re snobs, and I don’t like him,’” she said. “But I got to know him, and he’s not so bad.”
The two have been married for 66 years. Despite all her other accomplishments, she says her family is the one she’s proudest of by far.
“There is absolutely nothing in the world more important than raising children. For you are ensuring the next generation, hopefully, to be good citizens, good Christian people,” she said.
Virginia says she got involved in activism in the 1970s, compelled by injustices in the legal system. She and her friend Betty Bundy began tracking child abuse cases, struggling against a system that didn’t particularly like being watched.
“We would take them [the files] and read through them and we would say: ‘This isn’t fair, what you have done here. Y’all are not paying attention to these cases.’ And I did that for quite a few years,” Virginia said.
Eventually Mujeres Unidas was formed, taking the lead on court-watching for abused women and children in the legal system.
Virginia needed a new institution to keep accountable and finally settled on the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court. She formed a group called O.W.L.S. — the Objective Watchers of the Legal System — with friend Nancy Shary and started paying attention.
“Again, they were very ‘We don’t need anybody in our meetings. Y’all are not going to be able to do anything, we’re not changing anything.’ The same thing, very, very hard,” Virginia said. “Nobody likes to be looked at very closely.”
Virginia remembers the commissioners meeting in a room about the size of her dining room.
“The commission would sit around it with their backs to us and we would have to do all the work of finding the agenda, doing the background, asking questions. If they were really feeling rude they would just ignore us like we were not there,” she said. “So, we would get a chair and move it right behind them, where they couldn’t move. Finally they just gave in and said, ‘These women are going to be here, we might as well put up with it.’”
At one point, Virginia recalls two public health nurses being dismissed from their county jobs prompted protest.
“They were nuns, and my friends,” she said. “The people loved them, and they were down doing things with the people all the time.”
Virginia rallied some other women who thought the nurses had been mistreated.
“I went back to St. Paul’s and I organized some ladies who had never been in a courthouse in their lives. I had to teach them, when you step inside that courthouse, that marble floor is yours. All that beautiful wood is yours. I had to really tell them, do not be intimidated, you have a right to be here,” she said. “We picketed. Around the courthouse, for crying out loud. Unbelievable but true. Then the commissioners finally listened to what was going on…”
Eventually, Virginia shifted her attention a third time, this time to the Sharyland school board in the 1980s.
“Sharyland school board was not used to being looked at. Ooh, they did not like it,” she said.
Virginia and her fellow activists used the same tactics they’d learned working with the county.
“ We got so if they would go until 2 o’clock in the morning with their meetings, we’d stay. We’d order up pizza and I sat at the piano with my music and we’d play,” she said.
Virginia also remembers the struggle to organize a band booster for Sharyland and helped organize community fundraisers which raked in $10,000 by selling Mexican dinners and sloppy joes and snacks at basketball games.
“It was just a constant thing, year after year after year, trying to get money together,” she said. “They finally relented, and we got the first band in a long time.”
In the late ‘80s, Virginia decided to run for the Sharyland school board, spending a meager $300 on the proposition. She won, and served nine years.
“Seven of those years were great, moving forward, and two of them were not great, but c’est la vie,” she said.
Frequently, Virginia believed her efforts on the board were stymied over the years because of her gender.
“Why is it so hard for women to show they care as much as men? It’s harder, because you’ve got to do more, you’ve got to ask the right questions. Most of all, this is what I tell women: do your homework,” she said.
Virginia’s efforts have made an impact: last year the O.W.L.S. were honored with resolutions on both the Texas Senate and House floors. They were again recognized this year after the passage of House Bill 2840, a bill which will allow Texans to speak more freely on agenda items at public meetings.
Today, Virginia isn’t as active as she once was. She’s thrown away her stacks of government records and focuses more on her and Pat’s health, although she still talks with O.W.L.S. and is still recognized by politicians in restaurants.
“What hurts me now is to see that we no longer have an active Lions Club. Kiwanis, gone. People don’t want to volunteer anymore … there’s something missing when you’re not willing to do something for nothing, except that you care about your community. Maybe it’s just the times,” she said.