"Just so you know," Catherine Read said casually during a recent conversation, “I’ve got more ideas than a dog has fleas.”
And new ideas are exactly what she said is needed for George Mason University and Fairfax City to come together in a partnership that will benefit both.
“You look at our downtown and where are the students, where is the activity, where is the energy?” said Read, the first Mason alum, and first woman, to be Fairfax mayor. “I’m thinking, ‘We live next door to the largest public university in Virginia, so what is the city not doing well? What kind of things can we do between the campus and the city?’ That’s what we should be asking ourselves.”
Read, BA Government and Politics ’84, is passionate about building that relationship, as it is so much a part of her personal and career arc.
She did, after all, meet her first husband at Mason during a work-study job researching 19th-century literary reviews in the old New York Tribune. She is on the board of Fall for the Book and has her Mason degree framed and proudly displayed in her City Hall office.
“It is so important to have local politicians who have a connection to both the town and the university,” said Professor Michele Greet, who directs Mason’s Art History Program and is Read’s long-time neighbor. “Catherine is the perfect person to seek paths toward greater collaboration.”
Read, who grew up in Southwest Virginia, came to Mason as a transfer from Emerson College in Boston, where she was a theater major. She knew of Mason only because Emerson’s forensics team, of which she was part, was consistently beaten by the powerful Patriot squad.
While at Emerson, though, Read took a class in what was then the Department of Public and International Affairs (now the Schar School of Policy and Government), “Political Thought,” that she called “a clarion call to switch from a course of study focused on my passion for theater and think about another passion I’ve had since my elementary school: history and politics.”
That background, nurtured and expanded at Mason, guided the legislative advocacy work with nonprofits that occupied much of Read’s past 10 years.
Her biggest wins include successfully helping the Virginia Autism Project lobby for autism insurance reform that, when it passed in 2011, required insurance companies to provide medically necessary behavioral therapies.
Read also helped the Virginia Alliance for Breastfeeding Laws successfully push for a 2015 law that allows mothers to breastfeed their children anywhere the mother is lawfully present.
That platform, Read said, includes building a bench of young, hungry political talent in Fairfax City and establishing a “21st-century culture in a city that has been very traditional up until this point.”
And that’s where Read’s ideas to build bridges between Mason and Fairfax come in.
Already there are plans for a June Pride celebration in the city, and something informally called the “CUE Crawl: A pub crawl without alcohol” that will take place in August during Mason’s Welcome Week.
That’s when incoming students will have a chance to get a taste of the city by riding the free CUE (City-University Energysaver) Bus through Fairfax, stopping at pubs and restaurants that will serve food, mocktails, and non-alcoholic beer.
“We are thrilled to work with Mayor Read and her team to create the first Fairfax Pride celebration this June,” said Josh Kinchen, director of Mason’s LGBTQ+ Resource Center. “While we are still in the planning stage, we expect to have multiple ways for folks to engage with local LGBTQ+-owned businesses and have a space to dance. We are proud to work with Mayor Read as an engaged alum to further deepen the relationship between Mason and the Fairfax Campus’s home city.”
“I’ve got skin in the game,” Read said. “My Mason degree has grown in value as Mason has grown in stature in Virginia and globally. I consider it an amazing return on investment.”