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Councilman took stand for justice

 George Van Sant was passionate about revitalizing downtown Fredericksburg.
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Date published: 1/22/2013

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.

"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.

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