Helen Holt, a science teacher who was widowed into politics when she took over her late husband’s seat in the West Virginia legislature and later carved a new career in the federal government focused on senior citizens and their long-term care needs, died July 12 in Boca Raton, Florida. She was 101.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said her son, Rush Holt Jr., a New Jersey Democrat who served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives until declining to seek reelection last year. A physicist, he is now chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Helen Holt, who received a graduate degree in zoology, was a member of the association long before her son. She taught biology at a now-defunct women’s college in suburban Maryland when Life magazine published a glamour shot of her in 1940 as part of a spread on the country’s prettiest schoolteachers.
The image caught the fancy of Rush Holt, a West Virginia Democrat who in 1934 became one of the youngest men ever elected to the U.S. Senate. Dubbed the “boy Senator,” he was 29 when he won his seat — a year below the Constitutional minimum — and had to wait until he turned 30 before being sworn in.
His youth and zestful oratory drew national attention, but his opposition to New Deal programs and his isolationist political views at the start of World War II increasingly marginalized him until his defeat for reelection in 1940.
He continued to seek elective office in West Virginia, losing two gubernatorial bids and a U.S. Senate and House race. He changed party affiliation along the way from Democratic to Republican. He won several state house races before his death from cancer at 49.
Rush Holt did not have insurance when he died. To support three children, Helen Holt resumed teaching at a women’s junior college in West Virginia even after she was appointed to complete her husband’s unexpired term in the House of Delegates, a nonsalaried job.
In 1957, she became West Virginia’s first female secretary of state after Gov. Cecil Underwood tapped her to fill a seat left vacant by a death. She was defeated at the ballot box for a full term the next year but was named assistant commissioner of public institutions, overseeing nursing homes and women’s prisons.
Holt returned to Washington in 1960 when President Dwight Eisenhower appointed her special assistant to the commissioner for the Federal Housing Administration’s program overseeing nursing homes. At the time, there was a rapidly accelerating push at the state and federal levels to improve care for the country’s estimated 17 million senior citizens.
Holt helped establish higher standards for long-term care facilities and provided insured mortgages to build more than 1,000 nursing homes.
“All there had been up until this time were ‘old peoples’ homes,” she told an interviewer with the National League of American Pen Women, a group that promotes writing and the arts. “Some were called ‘poor houses’ and some were ‘pop and mom’ care places. They needed something better and wanted it.”
She continued working on similar issues for the next 23 years, as an appointee under seven consecutive presidents at what became the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Helen Louise Froelich was born in Gridley, Illinois, on Aug. 16, 1913. Her father was a carpenter who became a funeral director. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in zoology from Northwestern University in 1934 and 1938, respectively.
She then spent a few years teaching biology at the old National Park College for women in the Forest Glen area of Silver Spring, Maryland., before marrying Rush Holt in 1941.
She was a past president of the West Virginia State Society of Washington and the Executive Women in Government organization. She had homes in Boca Raton and Washington.
Besides her son, of Washington and Hopewell Township, New Jersey., survivors include a nephew she raised, David Chase of North Syracuse, New York; six grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. A daughter, Jane Holt Seale, died in 2008.
Over the decades, Holt received honors for her career but tended to play down efforts to trumpet her as a “trailblazer” for women. “I just liked to work for something that was worthwhile,” she once said.