Elizabeth Whiting: Loudoun’s Unflappable Town Attorney

Elizabeth D. Whiting, a dean of Loudoun’s legal community, died Sept. 8 surrounded by family at her Leesburg home. She was 72. 

Known for her legal acumen and vast knowledge of municipal law in Virginia, Whiting had garnered numerous accolades for her contributions to life in Loudoun, from her service as the municipal attorney to several Loudoun’s towns, to her longtime support for and stewardship of community organizations, including the Loudoun Museum. 

She was born May 12, 1949, in Arizona. She moved often as a child because of her father’s career in the U.S. Army, including living three years in Germany and three years in Japan.

After graduating law school at the University of Virginia, she began her storied career in municipal law working as an assistant county attorney in Prince William County in 1977. She was hired by County Attorney Terry Emerson and then-Deputy County Attorney John Foote, both members of the law school’s class a year ahead of her.

Foote recalls her as a standout in the class—both for her legal talents and her striking appearance, with long hair below her waist often in pigtails. 

“We were in different classes and so did not know each other well, but UVA was a pretty small law school in those days, and you could not miss her, Foote said. “When she came to us to work, Terry, who had been class of ’74 with me, and I knew she was the one to choose and we were never disappointed.”

When Foote took over as county attorney in 1982, Whiting was promoted as his deputy. 

“She was always a steady hand and a ready one as well. She was a first-rate lawyer in a county in constant flux,” Foote said. “She coped with her challenges with grit and wit and a constant readiness to tend toward kindness. She became a legend among local government lawyers, and even if our careers diverged, our mutual affection did not.”

Whiting formed her life partnership with another UVA law school grad, her husband Edward J. Finnegan. While she was helping to guide Prince William County through its growth challenges, Finnegan was doing the same in Loudoun County, as assistant county attorney from 1976 to 1980 and as county attorney until he left the position 1989 to join the Shaw Pittman law firm and establish an office in Leesburg. He died in 1993 of liver cancer at the age of 44.

Following his death, the care of their two adopted sons became Whiting’s focus, and, they would say, often her biggest challenges.

Jim and Thomas Finnegan said she was the most generous person they’d ever known—a tribute to which many who knew her would attest. 

“She and my dad adopted us not knowing any family history or really anything about us,” Jim said. After their father’s death, Jim said he and his brother “took a downhill turn, caused a lot of issues, wreaked havoc, and she never swayed. She was always there, always supportive.”

That was a trait Whiting showed on many occasions, always up for some fun and showing her well-known sense of humor.

Jim also remembered his mother showing up at his elementary school, helping in the classroom or with a special project—even turning up dressed as a clown. She and her sons and five grandchildren enjoyed doing many things together—including traveling, hiking, cooking, and movie-watching.

Thomas said his mother taught him so many lessons that he’d remember forever, recalling she was “so open, so accepting.” And even when she had to discipline her sons, she did it forthrightly but “in the nicest possible way.” She also taught them how important it was to never lie but to do the right thing.

That is the straightforward advice Whiting also gave to the town governments she advised after leaving her Prince William County post. In Loudoun, those included Lovettsville, Middleburg, and Hillsboro, where tributes to her poured in late last week.

There was a palpable sense of regret and loss expressed by many who knew Whiting. Lovettsville Town Manager Sam Finz said she was always “genuine, sincere and very professional.” He called her very responsive to what the various town councils sought to achieve and would always get back to them with a legal solution.

“She was so knowledgeable about state law, and so able to give you an immediate response,” he said. Finz spoke with her three times a week to work on town issues. “I’m going to miss her dearly.”

Keith Markel, Leesburg’s deputy town manager, said Whiting’s expertise and advice was important when he served at Lovettsville town manager early in his municipal government career. “Her huge wealth of information and familiarly with the law” was critical to his success, he said.

Hamilton Mayor David Simpson, who worked with Whiting when he served at Middleburg’s police chief, called her a “special lady.” 

Hamilton Town Attorney Maureen Gilmore was a close friend, as the two shared a love of Maine, lobster rolls in addition their dedication to municipal law. She noted Whiting’s long fight with ill health, while continuing to support the towns and her other clients. She was generous in sharing her deep knowledge of the law and giving practical advice, Gilmore said. “She had the ability to see the whole forest,” she said.

Martha Mason Semmes, who like Whiting has served most of Loudoun’s towns in one way or another over the four decades, said she was “a classy lady, as well as an accomplished attorney and a dear colleague.” Semmes worked with Whiting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Semmes was the town planner in Middleburg. “She was unflappable, so skilled and made my job easy,” she said.

Whiting’s knowledge and guiding hand also was much appreciated in Hillsboro, where in recent years she assisted with the town’s largest expansion and its complex traffic calming and infrastructure projects. As Mayor Roger Vance noted, “We were a small town with big ambitions, and she would give use legal guidance. When we wanted to stretch things, she would always explain the pitfalls of such action, that things could always go sideways … but she was also ready to listen to our crazy ideas and help us figure it out.” 

“It’s a huge loss for all of us. We’ve lost a great friend,” Vance said, recalling her courage in adversity—courage she never lost—and the way her face crinkled up when she laughed.

As a statewide leader in the commonwealth’s legal community, she was recognized in 2002 with the Local Government Attorneys of Virginia’s Distinguished Service Award—an award named in honor of her husband.

She was preceded in death by her husband, Edward Finnegan; and two siblings, Helen Whiting and Christian Flemming. She is survived by one sister, Margaret Flemming; two sons, Jim Finnegan and Thomas Finnegan; one daughter-in-law, Alicia Green-Finnegan; five grandchildren, Quincy, Elijah, Nehemiah, Kaila, and Alivia; two nieces, Hillary and Audrey; and three grand-dogs.

A viewing is scheduled from 11 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 18, with a service following at Colonial Funeral Home in Leesburg.

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