“Legacy” is a powerful word within the NLAPW. Generations of Pen Women have come before us forging new paths in the arts professions. We are blessed to have elder members, women in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, who bring wisdom, experience, and a lifetime of creativity to the NLAPW. None is a greater inspiration than Helen Holt, who on August 16, 2013 celebrated her 100th year on Earth and her 61st year as a Pen Woman.
From Patricia Daly-Lipe of the District of Columbia branch comes this personal salute to Helen, her accomplishments and her character:
Sharp and marked with an incredible memory, Helen continues to take an interest in the lives of others, never conceding the importance and influence of her own life on others.
Helen received her B.A. from Northwestern University in 1934. In 1937, after being encouraged to pursue a graduate degree, Helen applied for a teaching fellowship in Zoology at Northwestern University and “to my surprise, I was accepted.”
In the Spring of 1938, Helen received her M.A. degree and went to teach at National Park College, a girls’ school near Washington, DC, on the side of Rock Creek Park, currently in the process of being saved as a historic treasure. Her summers were spent working for the Dermetics Co. at Rockefeller Center in New York City. In NYC, she also took a modeling course and she says, “It was one of those pictures that my students sent into Life Magazine for their spread of the ‘prettiest school teachers in the US.’” The magazine did a double page spread of pictures. “I received a lot of letters from all over, even some fellows in the service.” It was one of those pictures that her future husband, Sen. Rush Holt, saw. He pointed it out to his sister Jane. When her reply was, “I know her,” Rush said, “Prove it.”
Sen. Holt, the youngest man ever elected to the United States Senate, represented West Virginia. Since he was only 29, he had to wait six months before being allowed to take his seat (two days after his 30th birthday). Sen. Holt served from 1935 until 1941.
When Rush Holt, Sr. died at the age of 49 he left Helen with three children,aged 6, 8, and 12 to raise alone. Despite being left with no income, Helen moved on to create her own political career. “I’d worked closely with the people of West Virginia and became a member of the House of Delegates.” Next, Helen was appointed by Gov. Cecil Underwood to replaced deceased Daniel O’Brien thus becoming the first woman Secretary of State in West Virginia. She was also the first woman to hold any statewide office. It is Helen’s belief that each of us is here for a purpose, and we have a responsibility to do what God wants us to do. “So I live one step at a time. I put my load on Him and He has opened doors that I’ve tried to follow through,” she said.
Helen was responsible for the building of 1600 nursing homes with 150,000 beds (which she did)! Initially appointed by President Eisenhower in 1960 who wished to task her with creating a program to fix the nation’s ailing network of nursing homes. When she was ensconced in her office in the Federal Housing Administration building, she had a secretary but no instructions. “My first act was a conference with the commissioner of FHA. His only words to me were, ‘You are on your own because no one knows anything about this.’”
Helen writes that people were clamoring for help in their communities. “All there had been up until this time were ‘old peoples’ homes; some were called ‘poor houses’ and some were ‘pop and mom’ care places. They needed something better and wanted it…” The focus had to be on the humane care of the elderly. By 1965, 314 nursing homes had been insured and 210 had been completed with 201 endorsed by the FHA. At that time, Helen estimated there were 16,914 beds in use in the homes and that the combined mortgages totaled 98 million dollars. “I tried to do the best job I could and I must have done something right because I served under seven Presidents.”
Helen is a firm believer that each of us is here with a purpose. “It was challenging from the beginning, new challenges every day. It was satisfying work because I was always helping people.” Helen continues to be an advocate of women in public service. Deservedly, Helen was awarded the International Women’s Year Achievement Award and declared West Virginia Woman of the Decade. In 1971, Helen Holt was chosen as Professional Woman of the Year for the Washington area by the Potomac Business and Professional Women’s Club. This year, 2013, Helen received an honorary degree from West Virginia University for her service to the state.
So many stories! One Helen mentioned to me recently was about a flight she took with Charles Lindbergh, before he flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the ocean. He was barnstorming around the country and stopped in her town. She sat in his little two seater plane with her dad and was flown by Lindbergh above her little town in Illinois.
Helen’s 100th birthday was celebrated at the historic National Park Seminary where she had once taught. The festivity took place in the 65-foot high vaulted Ballroom with its Gothic beams, leaded-glass clerestory windows, arcaded brickwork, and French-spindled balustrades on two tiers of curved balconies. The ballroom is 100 feet long and 60 feet high with statuary niches topped with beam-buttressed dormers. There are also chandeliers and stained glass windows, all of which provide a “phantasmagorical” experience to anyone inside, especially when celebrating Helen Holt’s 100th birthday!
If the business of life is to live each day with vim, vigor, and vitality, then Helen Holt is the perfect example of living that life.
District of Columbia Branch