When the Hamilton Town Council holds its next monthly meeting, its longest serving member won’t be sitting at the table. After 36 years of service, John Unger did not seek reelection this year.
Unger, 77, was elected to the Town Council in 1984. Since then, he has been re-elected eight times to serve nine consecutive four-year terms. During those nearly four decades, Unger served under seven mayors, participated in about 1,880 Town Council meetings and took somewhere around 7,500 votes. He helped to purchase the property for the community park, prepare close to three dozen annual budgets and provide sewer service to dozens of properties outside the town limits, all while trying to work quietly behind the scenes.
But before Unger ever made it onto the Town Council, or moved to the town in 1976, he lived life in places thousands of miles away from, and far different from, the second smallest town in Loudoun.
Unger, a Trucksville, PA, native, attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a full-ride scholarship in the early 1960s. After his first year in school, he took time off and moved to Alaska. It was then that he decided to forgo a career in electrical engineering and to pursue geology instead.
After graduating from MIT, Unger attended Dartmouth College, where he earned his PhD in geophysics. He subsequently landed a job with the United States Geological Survey in 1969 and moved to Menlo Park, CA. Later, he moved to Hawaii, where he witnessed three years of non-stop volcanic activity, he said. In fact, he and his wife, Carolyn, and their two kids at the time used to watch the lava flows as entertainment.
“It was pretty exciting,” he said.
In 1976, Unger and his family grew homesick for seasons other than summer and decided to move to Hamilton, where Unger commuted each day to the USGS headquarters in Reston. Unger said at that time, the town’s average age was much higher than it is today and one of the region’s most vital highways ran past his front yard, before today’s four-lane Rt. 7 bypass had been built. But, Unger said, the scenery in the back portion of his 2-acre property was much the same as it is today.
Unger’s first stint on the Town Council came in November 1983, after being appointed to fill a vacancy. He said that appointment followed urging from his neighbor and former Town Councilman Bob Trussell. Unger soon was elected to his first four-year term.
He said his desire to run for the council was shaped predominantly by the development of the land surrounding Hamilton. At the time, Purcellville was annexing many acres around its borders and expanding east toward Hamilton’s boundary. Unger said that upset a lot of residents who didn’t want their community to change.
“It began to look like Purcellville was trying to urbanize,” he said, adding that he unofficially ran on the slogan of “Don’t Purcellville Hamilton.”
“My thing was to keep Hamilton as the people liked it and as it had been,” he said.
In 1988, Unger won his first re-election. That was just the start. He won re-election every four years throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and even got a little more time to focus on his council job in 2005 when he retired from USGS.
Unger said that, although he served as vice mayor a few times, he never ran for mayor because he felt being mayor was a job for someone who could commit more time in town than he was able to provide. Instead, he focused his leadership skills on the town’s fiscal health, serving as the chairman of the Finance Committee since the mid-1980s.
“I thought it was important to keep the town on an even keel financially,” he said.
Mayor Dave Simpson, who served alongside Unger as a councilman from 2010 to 2014 and as mayor for the past six years, said Unger was “a wizard” with the town budget.
“He would just take care of that with ease,” he said. “He is not going to be replaced.”
In his nearly four decades on the council, Unger helped to buy the property for the town to create the Hamilton Community Park, which was a contentious topic because of the amount of money the town spent at the time. More notably, he helped to find financing for and implement a project that hooked up dozens of out-of-town properties, many with failing septic systems, to the town’s sewer system. That project set up the sewer tax district, which to this day provides the town with a sizeable amount of revenue.
One of the largest controversies Unger saw—and was a part of—came in more recent years, when a secret write-in campaign yielded the unexpected ouster of two incumbent council members who were on the ballot in that election. Unger was the only incumbent to be voted back in that year.
On a lighter note, Unger recalled one of the town’s quirkier annual traditions, in which town leaders would present the oldest man in town with a ceremonial cane. He said that while town leaders were walking to the house of that year’s cane winner, another elderly man met them on the street and exclaimed, “get that damn cane of death away from me!”
After experiencing so many rewarding, controversial and comical situations, Unger decided to relinquish his seat on the Town Council this year by not running for re-election. He said he didn’t dwell on that decision and that it was in response to stable town affairs and a desire to do more in his personal life.
For one, Unger said he was comfortable stepping away because of his confidence in existing, and newly elected, council members. Councilwoman Rebecca Jones, a certified public accountant, will take over leadership of the Finance Committee.
“I felt really good about that,” Unger said.
More importantly to Unger, he and his wife, Carolyn, will now have more time to visit their kids in Houston, San Jose and Vermont, along with their grandchildren. Unger said he felt bad about missing council meetings to make those types of trips in the past.
They also plan to visit the volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Rangeand plan to make a trip to Alaska—where Unger helped a friend build a cabin in 1963.
“We want to do a lot more travelling anyway,” he said.
But Unger’s address isn’t changing. He’ll still be a Hamilton resident and keep the title of Loudoun’s longest-serving Town Council member—at least for now.
Loudoun’s second longest-serving Town Council member is Round Hill Vice Mayor Mary Anne Graham, who was elected in 1984 and again in 1992. She has since served a total of eight full terms, or 32 years. Graham was re-elected in May and will tentatively serve out another four years, at which point she’ll match Unger’s 36 years served, although not consecutively.
Loudoun’s third longest-serving council member is Michael Snyder, who served alongside Unger on the Hamilton Town Council for seven full terms, or 29 years, before resigning in June 2019 for a move to Pennsylvania.
Unger said he’ll always remember working with fellow council members who loved the town the same as he did, and still does.
“That was very rewarding to find that there were people who cared about Hamilton as much as I did,” he said.