Meyera Fran Ellenson Oberndorf

by | Mar 20, 2015 | Obituaries

Virginia Beach —Meyera Fran Ellenson Oberndorf passed away on Friday, March 13, in Charlotte, N.C. She was 74.

Meyera was many things to many people: a devoted daughter, a dear friend, a loving wife, mother and grandmother. But for the countless people whose lives she touched, she will forever be remembered as Mayor Meyera. For 20 years, Meyera served as the Mayor of Virginia Beach. She was the first popularly elected Mayor, and popular she was, travelling every square mile of the city to make appearances at events large and small. Whether it was official dinners for international dignitaries or cookouts for local little leagues, Meyera was there, taking time to talk to the citizens she loved, flashing a smile bigger than her petite 5’0″ frame.

Meyera was born on February 10, 1941, in Newport News, the only child of Louis and Hilda Ellenson. Family was always very important to Meyera, as was her Orthodox Jewish faith. She adored her parents and was close to the many cousins who lived in her neighborhood. Ballet and public speaking were among her talents, foreshadowing a career in the public eye.

In the early 1960s, Meyera studied at Stern College for Women in New York, where she met Roger Oberndorf, the love of her life, at a college mixer. After Roger enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, he and Meyera were married at the historic Chamberlain Hotel in Hampton on June 11, 1961. Meyera completed her education at the College of William & Mary and Old Dominion University.

The Oberndorfs settled in the Kempsville section of Virginia Beach as Roger entered civilian life as an engineer at the Ford Motor Plant in Norfolk. Parenthood came next as the couple welcomed daughters Marcie and Heide. Meyera tried her hand at substitute teaching but found her real passion when she joined the Virginia Beach Public Library Board in the late 1960s. Thanks to her pioneering efforts, the city’s fledgling and underfunded library program became a priority and a point of local pride. Politics turned into a family affair for the Oberndorfs, with Meyera as the charismatic leader and Roger as her campaign manager and strategist.

Meyera was the first woman elected to Virginia Beach City Council in 1976. Twelve years later, she made history again as the first directly elected Mayor, a position she held for four consecutive terms. Meyera approached the job as the people’s representative, always standing up to the established male-dominated structure of city politics and putting citizens’ needs first.

To the delight of the woman who loved to read to elementary school students, the Virginia Beach Central Library was named in her honor in 2009. Meyera was politically active on the national scene, with several leadership positions in the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities. Meyera also served as a personal role model. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, she made her results public to raise awareness of cancer research. Newsweek named her one of the nation’s 25 Most Dynamic Mayors.

Her next role as “Nana” to grandchildren Lila and Joey was especially dear to Meyera’s heart. She proudly included them in city events and in official visits to Europe and Asia.

In recent years, personal challenges began to accumulate for Meyera. She lost Roger in 2012 when he died from complications from a brain injury. Her energy and spirit were dimmed by the slow, steady march of Alzheimer’s. Marcie and Heide made the difficult decision to move Meyera from her beloved Virginia Beach to live near Marcie’s family in Charlotte. Ever the crusader, Meyera was eager to make make her condition public, and to help spread the word about the importance of Alzheimer’s research. It was her final act of public service.

Meyera is survived by daughter Marcie Oberndorf-Kelso, son-in-law Marty Kelso, granddaughter Lila Kelso and grandson Joey Kelso of Charlotte, NC; and daughter Heide Oberndorf of San Francisco, Calif.

A service was held at the Virginia Beach Convention Center with Rabbi David Ellenson officiating. Burial took place at the Jewish Cemetery in Hampton.