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Departing leader of Great Falls group proud of its achievements

William Canis has led Great Falls Citizens Association for past 7 years
Great Falls Citizens Association president William Canis (right) poses with former Fairfax County School Board member Jane Strauss after they were named Lord and Lady Fairfax for Dranesville District in 2021 by Supervisor John Foust (center).

After seven years as president of the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA), William Canis has decided it’s time for someone else to head the organization.

But he’s happy with what the group has accomplished and hopeful it will stay vigilant in its central objective of preserving the community’s semi-rural character.

Canis informed association members recently he would not seek another term. He will, however, become the group’s immediate past president and continue to serve on its board.

“I’ve decided that, as much fun as I’ve been having, it was time to open the door to some new blood,” Canis said. “I hope to do some traveling and I have grandchildren who live out of town, whom I want to see more of.”

Canis and his family moved to Great Falls in 1999. In 2006, he was among a group of people who approached GFCA leaders with the idea of doing an inventory of big trees in the community, similar to what had been done where he used to live in New Jersey.

GFCA agreed to promote the initiative, which resulted in 150 entries representing 23 tree species.

“People were very excited,” Canis recalled. “We had a big awards ceremony on July 4 and raised education and awareness.”

The Fairfax County Tree Commission the following year recognized the tree inventory with an award, he said.

Having been introduced to GFCA, Canis joined the group in 2006 and worked on its Communications Committee, then co-chaired and later chaired its Environment, Parks and Trails Committee, which held well-attended public meetings about the effects of deer overpopulation.

GFCA raised the profile of that issue and worked with state and county agencies regarding it. Several groups also offered bow-hunting opportunities on private property to cull the deer herd, he said.

Canis spent three and a half years as GFCA’s vice president before taking over as president in July 2016. Since then, the group and its committees have:

• Helped establish the Great Falls Grange Foundation, which manages and works to improved the Grange and the Old Schoolhouse building next door.

• Supported establishment of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s resident-curator program, under which selected curators can live for free at historic properties in the county in exchange for rehabilitating them and periodically opening the sites to the public.

“It’s truly one of the gems in all of Great Falls,” Canis said of Kirk’s rehabilitation project.

• Established a Schools Committee, which is charged with monitoring boundary issues.

• Obtained temporary funding, which GFCA hopes will be made permanent, to have U.S. Park Police manage traffic near Great Falls Park on heavy-traffic days.

Canis still is monitoring several issues in Great Falls. The association remains vigilant on keeping sewer service – and hence, redevelopment – away from much of Great Falls, except the sections near Route 7.

GFCA has had success with tree plantings and preservation, but Canis wishes the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors would press state lawmakers about enhancing tree preservation on development projects. Many developers now clear-cut sites before building homes, he said.

Canis also would like to see crosswalks installed at Georgetown Pike and Walker Road in central Great Falls. In addition, GFCA seeks to keep one-lane bridges on Walker and Springvale roads. The Virginia Department of Transportation would like to replace those bridges with two-lane spans.

Canis holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s in international relations and economics, both from Johns Hopkins University.

He has worked (in chronological order) as a legislative assistant and staff economist to the late U.S. Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), Caterpillar Inc’s Washington manager of government affairs, vice president of international-government affairs for American Express, and acting president and vice president of The Manufacturing Institute.

His last job before retiring in June 2022 was a 13-year stint as a motor-vehicle-industry analyst for the Library of Congress/Congressional Research Service.

Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said Canis did an outstanding job of leading GFCA through many difficult challenges involving land use, roads, trails, parks, playing fields and other issues. Foust in 2021 named Canis “Lord Fairfax” for his district.

“Bill has been a very effective representative and spokesman for Great Falls,” Foust said, adding that Canis always seeks broad community input and works with GFCA board members, Great Falls residents and Foust’s office in a collaborative and productive manner. “Bill has contributed his time unselfishly, and he has set a very high standard for what it means to be a good community leader,” he said.

Pamela Grosvenor, who served with Canis on GFCA’s board, said she could not think of anyone more deserving of recognition in a community organization.

“Managing an all-volunteer nonprofit such as GFCA and effectively working with elected and government officials requires strong diplomatic and interpersonal skills,” she said. “It also requires someone who can motivate – to gently push, but not demand; someone who seeks input and listen to others; and someone with an affable demeanor.”

As editor-in-chief of GFCA’s newsletter, Canis has made it a “more professional vehicle for effectively and routinely sharing information,” she added.

GFCA secretary Elizabeth Huebner said Canis has kept the group strong, despite having to hold many of its discussions virtually during the past two and a half years.

“He is courteous, he listens, he tries to get people with different views to work together amicably and he is present at practically every committee meeting,” Huebner said. “He provides history, context and examples for many situations.”

Canis also initiated awards for GFCA members who have made significant contributions to the community, she said.

GFCA Executive Board member Ruth Carver said Canis’ has handled sometimes fractious board members with unfailing patience, fairness, and civility.   

“His calm demeanor and determination to reach a resolution of problems facing Great Falls has greatly benefited those who live here,” Carver said. “The community owes him a heartfelt thank-you.”