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Councilman took stand for justice

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George Van Sant, who passed away Sunday at the VCU Medical Center after suffering a stroke last week, will be remembered for his passion and conviction as a Fredericksburg leader and an educator, friends said.

“We’ve lost a great champion of equality and justice—a mover and shaker of making the world a better place,” said the Rev. Charles Sydnor, former rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg. Sydnor and Van Sant were friends for over 30 years after meeting at the church.

George Van Sant passed away Sunday after suffering a stroke. (REBECCA SELL/THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

“He did it quietly, because it was right, because it was a good and just thing to do,” Sydnor, now a Northumberland County resident, said of Van Sant’s efforts on behalf of social justice.

Van Sant, a distinguished retired Marine Corps colonel and longtime reservist, first came to Fredericksburg on a troop train during World War II.

“When we stopped, people were waiting and handed us coffee through the windows of the train,” Van Sant recalled during a 2005 interview, his eyes growing wide 60 years later at the memory. “I never forgot that. I was so impressed with the people of the town.”

He came to Mary Washington College in 1958 as an assistant professor of philosophy hired by then-President Grellet Simpson.

He taught at Mary Washington for 32 years. His work was recognized by the Grellet C. Simpson Award, the highest honor accorded to faculty by the school.

He was chairman of the Fredericksburg Democratic Party from 1975 to 1980, then resigned to run for City Council. He won, and worked with fellow council members Gordon Shelton, Lawrence A. Davies and Sidney Armstrong, among others, to annex the land that now includes Central Park, which has become a major source of tax revenue.

“The city was in bad shape,” he said in 2005, “financially, it was in really bad shape. Shops were boarded up. They had all moved to the [Spotsylvania] mall.”

He became a staunch ally of the Rev. Lawrence A. Davies, who was Fredericksburg’s first black mayor.

Davies said Van Sant went out of his way to make public displays of support for blacks back in the days when it took courage to do so.

He remembered that after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Van Sant led a march from Mount Zion Baptist Church to St. George’s Episcopal Church to calm tensions that were beginning to flare.

Van Sant said one bitter memory was the “Committee for Seven” political struggle that reduced the size of a then 11-member council and led to the firing of city manager Tony Hooper.

He said he resigned from the council then, in 1987, in part out of concern that the reduction in size would reduce black representation and in part out of desire to spend more time with his ailing wife, Susan Jane Hanna, who died of cancer in 1994. The couple had been married for 19 years.

Susan was Van Sant’s third wife and the third who passed away.

His first wife, Shirley Frances Miller, died in 1951 after three years of marriage. She was one of the last people in America to die of tuberculosis.

His second wife, Peggy Hutchinson, died in 1975 of an accidental overdose. She was the mother of Van Sant’s two children-Edward and Mary. Edward, called Ned by his family, died in an automobile accident.

Davies said Van Sant dealt with the series of tragedies in his life “in his own Marine way.”

Van Sant dedicated a 2008 book, “Taking on the Burden of History: Presuming to be a United States Marine,” to his son’s memory. The book was about his experiences in the Corps.

He married his fourth wife, Milena Stamm Smith, a friend of Susan’s from St. George’s Episcopal Church, in 1996.

Milena’s support helped him decide to run for council again that year. He was the top vote-getter in an eight-candidate field for two at-large seats.

During his second stint on council, Van Sant helped pass controversial approval for the Silver Cos. to build Celebrate Virginia, a large tourist resort area on the Rappahannock River.

Van Sant spent the final eight years of his life with wife Milena in a retirement community in Irvington.

“He never moved away from the principals he believed in and the things he fought for,” Davies said.

Michael Zitz: 540/846-5163,