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Celebrating Helen Holt

Posted by Angela Spatafore.
August 9th, 2021

Blog post by Jane LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.

Since we are a week away from the anniversary of her birth (August 16, 1913), I’d like to celebrate Helen Louise (Froelich) Holt.  She was the wife of Rush Dew Holt, who was generally credited with being the youngest popularly elected senator in the U.S. Senate, and she was a very educated woman and a public servant in her own right.  The WVRHC houses a collection of her papers.

Helen Holt was more academically accomplished than most women of her day, and had a career in education before moving into politics.  She received an AA degree at Stephens College, and then a Bachelors degree and an MS in Zoology at Northwestern University by 1938.  (For contrast, only 4% of women in 1940 had completed four years of college.)  From 1938-1941, she taught science courses at National Park College.

According to an obituary, Mrs. Holt first attracted her future husband’s attention when she was included in the February 12, 1940 issue of Life, where a photograph of her appeared as one of a selection of pretty schoolteachers.  The two-page spread was allegedly prompted by mass retaliation to a letter from a reader claiming that many schoolteachers were ugly. 

Photo of Helen Holt with the caption, "Helen Froelich teaches biology at National Park College, Forest Glen, Md."
Headshot of Helen (Froelich) Holt, 1940, from Life magazine

There was a brief article accompanying the pictures that pointed out the average salary of schoolteachers (presumably K-12) was $1,200 per year and suggested that teachers lost their jobs when they married, though it wasn’t noted whether this was the result of transitioning to the role of wife and homemaker or if marriage was generally cause for termination of a teaching position in 1940. (I have heard rumors that women who married were terminated from teaching jobs – if anyone has facts to share about this practice, please feel free to share them in the comments!) Regardless of how they met, Helen and Rush married in mid-June of 1941 and moved to West Virginia.

Between 1941 and 1955, Mrs. Holt cared for three children and supported her husband’s campaigns and political work. In 1955, her husband died, and she was appointed by the governor of West Virginia to fulfill her late husband’s term in the West Virginia House of Delegates. She then was elected as a delegate to the 1956 Republican National Convention, accepted a short-term teaching job at Greenbrier College, and followed that with a history-making appointment.

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Articles from various West Virginia and Washington D.C. newspapers announcing Mrs. Holt’s new position, 1957

According to the above articles, Helen Holt was the first woman ever to serve on the Board of Public Works AND the first woman to ever serve as secretary of state when she was appointed to that position following the death of the long-serving D. Pitt O’Brien. Based on the articles, it sounds like she moved her family from Lewisburg to Charleston in a matter of days, and started the position earning $11,000 per year to support herself and her children.

She ran for Secretary of State when her appointment ended, but did not win. She attributed her loss to the fact that she didn’t actually campaign (Helen Holt: A Centenarian’s Reflections on a Lifetime of Public Service, p. 883).

Secretary of State Helen F. Holt holding up West Virginia state flag, ca. 1958

Her work as secretary of state allowed her to show more of her skills and make additional political contacts, which helped bring her to the attention of the President Eisenhower.  He appointed her to serve as Special Assistant to the Commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration for Nursing Homes Program in 1960. From there she transitioned to assistant to the secretary for programs for the elderly and the handicapped in the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1974, and she continued her federal service until 1983. Her time working for the federal government spanned the careers of seven presidents, and she helped develop and implement a federal nursing home program from the ground up, advocating for quality care across the U.S.

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Barbara Bush, Helen Holt, and Nancy Reagan, undated

After concluding her career, Mrs. Holt continued to participate in volunteer work, including in a variety of women’s organizations and church groups.  She lived to be over 100 years old, passing away in 2015.  Please join me in celebrating this remarkable woman!

(All of the images in this blog post are of materials found in A&M 1858, the Helen Holt Papers, at the WVRHC.)

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