Virginia Lee Townsend is eighty-four years young, and is as smart, witty, and outspoken as ever. Born in San Antonio in 1934 at Rescue Home, a refuge for unwed mothers, she was raised in the PSJA (Pharr, San Juan, Alamo) area.

Growing up as an only child, early on she yearned to have a large family. At 24, Virginia married Patrick Townsend, who shared the same strong desire to create a home for a large family. Ten children later, Virginia proudly wears motherhood as her badge of honor.

Raised in the Rio Grande Valley, she remembers being a shy person until she was in her 30s. “By the time I had seven children, I said, ‘I’m gonna get run over if I don’t start speaking up,’ and I changed. Oh boy, I changed, I mean, I started giving my opinion,” she recalled.

Virginia attributes Sister Mary Brendan from St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Mission as a big influence in her life. The sister told her, “You’ve got to start saying what you believe.”

Photo by Nathan Lambrecht at The Monitor

Virginia did.

In the ‘70s, Virginia and Betty Bundy began attending court hearings involving abused women and children. Then, an organization called Mujeres Unidas formed and took over these cases. Shortly afterwards, Virginia and Nancy Shary began to attend county commissioners’ meetings in their search for honest government. The idea was to remind judges and attorneys that someone was always watching. O.W.L.S. – Objective Watchers of the Legal System – was suggested as the name of their group that grew to over 60 members. They would be found listening in at school board meetings, commissioners court, and child custody cases.

You can find the group still actively scrutinizing commissioners’ agendas on a weekly basis, wearing their colorful red O.W.L.S.shirts in different meetings across the RGV. However, Virginia has passed the reins to Fern McClaugherty, who has become their spokesperson.

Forty-years of bringing fairness to the legal system has gained Virginia some fans. She has seen politicians come and go, and they all know who she is. She has been threatened, subpoenaed, and had personal attacks against her integrity. Her response: “You can say whatever you want to about me, as long as it’s true; but if you lie, I’m coming after you.”

While active in her local community, Virginia still had a large household to maintain and found her passion in education, as she was heavily involved in her children’s schooling. After the closing of St. Paul’s Catholic Church School, her children were transferred to Sharyland public schools. It was there she noticed the prejudiced treatment her children received as Catholics. She attended all PTA and school board meetings.At the school board meetings, she noticed the unfair treatment from one school board member towards Romolo Martinez, who was the first Hispanic Superintendent in Sharyland. A staunch supporter of the Superintendent, she decided to run against that member for his seat on the board. With only $300, she ran a quiet campaign for Sharyland School Board Place One, which she won and served on from 1987 to 1996.

However, her experience on the school board opened her eyes. “I had seven wonderful years on the board with no politics; however the last term, I hated it,” Virginia said. “If you’re not there just for the kids, and you’re using it as a step up for something else, you’re not going to be a school board member that’s worth a flip.”

She graduated from Edinburg Regional College (now UTRGV) with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, but took motherhood seriously, as she believes “the most important thing in the world is to raise good kids for our future.”

Virginia doesn’t keep a running track record of where she’s volunteered throughout the years, but she spends her time at the Food Pantry in Mission, sings and also plays the organ for her church choir. Mostly she invests her time at public meetings when her presence is needed.

Overall, her involvement stems from the desire to see an “open and honest government in Austin, D.C., Hidalgo County, school boards, and city councils, to not be influenced by money or power.” Her advice to others is to “wake up and take off the blinders, get involved, and stay true to your cause. Don’t get off the path!”

Today, Virginia isn’t as active as she once was, but don’t let that fool you, she’s as vocal as ever. “My husband always tells me on my way out the door, ‘call me if you get put in jail.’”
The Townsends will be celebrating their 65th anniversary this June with their large family.

Miriam Cepeda

Miriam Cepeda is the Rio Grande Valley Bureau Chief for Texas Scorecard. A second-generation Mexican American, she is both fluent in English and Spanish and has been influential in grassroots organizing and conservative engagement within Hispanic communities. If you don’t find her “Trumping”, you can find her saving animals, running her dog, hiking the Andes, or volunteering with the U.S. National Park Service.