Robert W. Lohr Jr. originally intended to be a lawyer. More than a quarter century later, however, he left his post as Purcellville’s town manager as one of the region’s most respected municipal administrators.
His retirement was short-lived. Lohr has signed on with the Berkley Group in Charlottesville, a professional consulting firm specializing in evaluating and operating government service delivery processes.
As a kid, Lohr said he was known as “the class clown, a bit of a cut-up”—and dubbed as “the least likely” to succeed. A poor math grade kept him out of his first choice of college, and he entered James Madison University where he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and public administration, and minored in paralegal. Until his senior year, law school was still on his mind, but during a summer internship in Fairfax working in the fire chief’s office, he discovered a bent for office work and administration.
“It was a revelation,” Lohr said. “It was a difficult decision—I was in my final year. I loved the work in fire-rescue, and I lived at the fire station.” Also, he’d met his future wife, Michelle Rogers. Eventually, abandoning the dream of law school, Lohr earned a master’s degree in public management and public safety.
It’s not a decision he’s ever regretted.
His first foray into the world of local government was as town manager of New Market, with a population of 1,800, where he served from 1986 to 1993. He was 21 when he took that job—Virginia’s youngest town manager.
“I didn’t have a day’s worth of planning experience, but I learned on the job, with a supportive council and staff.”
During his seven years there, he created the town’s first personnel policies, updated its comprehensive plan, secured financing to build a new town hall without using public funds, expanded parks, built a new wastewater treatment plant and coordinated a special events program.
During that time, he and Michelle married. “We were competing with each other,” Lohr joked, as Michelle was assistant town manager in Woodstock.
Purcellville’s town manager post came open in 1992, after Jerry Schiro took the job as village manager in Chevy Chase, MD. Lohr interviewed in December, coming over the mountain following a blizzard. “It looked like Siberia,” he said.
Mayor Ron Masters offered him the job a few weeks later and he started in March. Michelle stayed in Woodstock and for two-and-a-half years they were a commuting couple. Today, she is the deputy zoning administrator for Loudoun County.
At the time, Purcellville was about the same size as New Market, but that’s where the similarities ended. The town was planning for a growth wave that continues today as Purcellville is home to more than 9,000 residents.
Many of the signature features of today’s Purcellville came about during his tenure—planning and development of large tracts that had been set aside by the town council and planning commission in the 1980s; establishing zoning for industrial and office use areas; the unprecedented growth spurt of the early 2000s that saw the town’s population grow by 400 percent in eight years; capital improvement projects of more than $60 million in facility upgrades, including building a new wastewater treatment plant and the struggle to meet the requirements of the Chesapeake Bay; expanding water supplies; the acquisition by the town of two iconic landmarks—Fireman’s Field and the Bush Tabernacle, and the Purcellville Train Station; completion of the 20-year Downtown Streetscapes project; and the successful push to secure a triple-A bond rating.
When he first arrived in town, Lohr recalled, “I hoped to be able to serve for five years if lucky and that turned into a marvelous career that spanned almost 25 years.”
In the recollection of longtime members of the community, several characteristics stood out in Lohr’s tenure: his willingness to sit down with anyone to discuss problems, his immediate participation in community activities, and his insistence on service and keeping the public informed.
Former council members vividly remembered that first meeting when Lohr interviewed for the job.
Then-Councilwoman Beverly MacDonald Chiasson said she found him “very impressive,” a recollection also echoed by former Councilman Paul Arbogast. She was a brand-new member of the council, and remembered Lohr immediately wanted to start work on a budget.
He told the departments to send him their initial figures, and was nonplussed by the response to his request, according to Chiasson.
“What do you mean—we’ve never done one past two pages?” While the reaction was funny, Chiasson said the town was in bad shape at the time.
“We had no money, and I remember at one of our first council meetings there was discussion about how to get a loan to meet payroll,” she said. “The state was fining us for the wastewater plant, which we had to replace, and we only had one first-class [plant] operator. Plus, the town’s dam was ready to break.”
Lohr advised members they needed to put money into infrastructure and staffing, and, in a signature move, told them they needed to make sure residents were aware of the town’s actions.
Chiasson recalled his firm but positive attitude. “He gave us a budget recommending what he thought we should do—but he also always gave us alternatives if we didn’t follow his recommendations. He was always very clear—it made our lives so much easier.”
Arbogast agreed. “We needed him; we had not been able to raise anyone’s pay, and every time we trained people for jobs at the wastewater treatment plant, we couldn’t keep them.”
Lohr had good ideas, he recalled. “I also remember asking him if, as a town manager in the case of a major problem, such as a water main break—would he jump down into the trench.” The answer was a positive “yes.”
One of Lohr’s proudest achievements was building—and retaining—an excellent staff.
“It’s what’s made my job easy and helped successive councils to accomplish their goals; it’s more than just a job, it’s a community you care about, and it’s the businesses and the people you serve. That’s prevalent at all levels,” he told staff in a farewell letter.
Lohr was a hands-on manager—known for jumping on a snow plow to clear streets, or picking up trash after events. “When so much happens by email or phone today, you need to sit down and show people you care—show the personal touch so people can see how government operates, see that we can provide good value for the public,” he said. “If a call comes in for help at 9 p.m. the Saturday before Christmas—how you respond is all important.”
“He set the standards for everyone to follow,” Arbogast said. “He instilled pride among the staff, stressing the need to provide excellent service—and he made it clear it he didn’t want them if they weren’t prepared to live up to that standard.”
Bill Murphy, owner of Valley Energy, was struck by Lohr’s professionalism. “His management skills were impeccable.”
“He believed in being prepared. He had the town in a state of readiness for every emergency—whether it was blizzards, power outages—and he’d call us to make sure we were prepared—often days in advance,” Murphy said.
Jeff Browning, owner of Browning Equipment, agreed. While much larger towns often had difficulty getting their streets cleared quickly during snowstorms, Purcellville’s were always ahead of others. He was helpful to the business community. “I can’t think of an occasion when he let us down,” he said.
Jim Bowman, a retired banker who was one of the founders of the Purcellville Business Association, said that Lohr was always willing to sit down and talk.
“You might not get everything you wanted, but he’d always tell you why something could not be done,” Bowman said.
Lohr points to the town’s successful bid for a triple-A bond rating, working with the town’s financial advisors, as a microcosm of the town’s progress. “It forced us to tell the story of the town—here’s where we were and where we are now—and where we’re going.”
He rented a bus, and took the financiers from the rating agencies around the town. “I love promoting Purcellville,” Lohr said, as he pointed out landmarks including Patrick Henry College, new facilities and the town’s historic properties. The money men were impressed, finding it a highly interesting story.
And the boom years in the early 2000s caught their attention. “We grew from 1,800 to 8,000 in six or seven years—schools, churches and faith institutions, business and shopping and eating venues—everything was hopping,” Lohr said.
The Town Council and the staff saluted Lohr during annual Employee Appreciation and Awards Luncheon on June 14. The inaugural Robert W. Lohr Jr. Management Excellence Award was presented to Assistant Town Manager Danny Davis and Dale Lehnig, the interim director of Public Works.
Interim Town Manager Alex Vanegas told Lohr, “We could never pay you back for all the coaching, knowledge and support you shared with us over the years.”
Mayor Kwasi Fraser said, Lohr “leaves an indelible impression on us all as leader, manager, mentor and friend.”
But the emotional highlight of the day was provided by Lohr’s executive assistant, Hooper McCann, who has worked for the town for 18 years.
McCann said when Lohr arrived in town in 1993, “I doubt he had any idea what an impact he would have on not only the town, but most importantly the staff. Over his 24-plus years he has led us through the good times and bad. It is often easier to lead during the good times and the true measure of a leader is how they manage during the hard times. We have experienced it all and throughout everything, staff has been able to count on one constant, Rob Lohr.”
McCann also said staff members know “Rob has high expectations for each of us and sets the performance bar high.”
“When you have someone like Rob at the helm, you are willing to go above and beyond your own expectations because you know that your efforts and hard work truly matter, and are respected and genuinely appreciated,” she said. “He has always felt personally responsible for each one of us. He has always been willing to stand behind us and look out for us collectively as well as individually.”
Lohr said he has appreciated the positive feedback he’s received since announcing his retirement two months ago.
“You don’t realize the impact you have on people on a daily basis—you can only pray and hope the decisions you make will have a positive impact on the citizens and businesses.”
Lohr: Role Model and Mentor
As he retired as Purcellville Town Manager, Robert W. Lohr Jr. received numerous accolades from his peers, who cited his willingness to aid other managers with both advice and practical help.
“There are a handful of managers throughout Virginia that everyone knows because of their reputation and contributions to the profession. Rob is definitely on that list,” said Keith Markel, who served as Lovettsville’s town manager before joining Leesburg as deputy town manager.
Middleburg Town Administrator Martha Mason Semmes, who worked under Lohr as a department head in Purcellville for five years, called him “the consummate professional.” In particular, she cited his “ability to provide the best advice and information to his elected officials. Then, as we are called as managers to do, he would step back and allow the policy makers to legislate.”
Hamilton Mayor David L. Simpson worked in Lohr’s administration as Purcellville Chief of Police from 1997 to 2005, and also knew him more recently from his work on the Coalition of Loudoun towns. “I always knew I could call on him at any time.”
Markel called Lohr “a role model for everyone in our profession.”
Recalling his start in Lovettsville as town manager, “From day one, he offered his complete support both professionally and for my personal career development. He was the ‘elder statesman’ of managers in western Loudoun and we all looked to him for advice and guidance.”
Lovettsville’s former Mayor Elaine Walker is well aware of that bond and assistance as it was under her watch that Markel came to town. Before the council authorized the search for its first town manager, Walker often called on Lohr for advice and information.
Leesburg Town Manager Kaj Dentler praised Lohr’s down-to-earth attitude. “He knew everything about the town from policy to valves. He was great to me and one of the first to congratulate me on becoming town manager while always offering Leesburg assistance in any way needed.”
Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said that as a fellow colleague in the profession of public administration, “Rob exemplifies the best of what we worked for as students and the best of what we strive for as professional managers.”
Hemstreet said he admired Lohr for being able to balance his professional duties with numerous community activities while raising a family—“pretty amazing in this day and age.”
Lohr was well known also in various inter-governmental organizations, including the Virginia Municipal League and the Towns Association of Northern Virginia, co-founded in 2008 by former Purcellville Mayor Bob Lazaro and Steve Benedetti.
“Rob was well respected, very accessible, and always ready to help other towns with utility or other problems,” Lazaro said, noting Lohr always advocated the importance of allying with other municipalities to achieve common goals.
— Margaret Morton