Charleston, W.Va. – Helen F. Holt, the first woman to serve as West Virginia Secretary of State, celebrated her 100th birthday today.
Born in rural Illinois, Secretary Holt studied at Stephens College and the Marine Biological Laboratory. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in zoology from Northwestern University. She taught biology at National Park College in Forest Glen, Maryland and Greenbrier College for Women in Lewisburg. In 1941 she married Senator Rush Holt, Sr. (D-West Virginia) after his only term in the United States Senate. After he served in Washington, Rush Holt returned to West Virginia and was elected to the House of Delegates. While in office, he passed away – and his wife was appointed to fill his unexpired term.
In 1957, when West Virginia Secretary of State D. Pitt O’Brien passed away, Holt was appointed by Governor Cecil Underwood to be the first woman to serve in a statewide office. That feat would not be repeated until 1988, when Margaret Workman was elected to the State Supreme Court.
In May of 2013, Holt received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from West Virginia University.
“My parents expected me to be top in my class and always to do a good job every time,” Secretary Holt said after receiving the honorary degree. “Anything I did I had to do well – if it was sweeping the floor or cutting the grass. I put my work first, I knew I had to have a job and I knew I had to do it well.”
Secretary Holt has remained in close contact with Secretary of State Natalie E. Tennant since 2009. In October of that year, Holt and Tennant recorded an interview where Holt recalled being contacted by Governor Underwood about serving as Secretary of State.
“I didn’t want it, I didn’t think I wanted to do it,” Holt said. “I hadn’t planned on going on in politics. I only was in the House of Delegates because Rush asked me to. I was in Baltimore, and Cecil tracked me down, and he said ‘We need you right now.’ So I finally made up my mind that I would come back to West Virginia and do it.”
Holt also attended the summer conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State as it was being held for the first time in West Virginia in 2011.
“Helen Holt has become a trusted mentor and a wonderful friend over these last couple years,” Secretary Tennant said. “She is someone I can count on to always speak her mind. She is truly a trailblazer in West Virginia, and I appreciate the fact that she is still so eager to travel back here for special events.”
From 1959-60, Helen Holt served as West Virginia's Assistant Commissioner of Public Institutions and was responsible for the women’s prison and homes for elderly persons. In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed her to create a program to lead the nation away from unsafe and inefficient nursing homes. Through Holt’s mortgage insurance program at the Federal Housing Administration, and later the Department of Housing and Urban Development, she established national high standards for the care of the elderly and oversaw the construction of 1,000 modern long-term healthcare facilities with more than 100,000 beds, at no cost to the taxpayer. Her work was so successful she was reappointed by the following six Presidents.
She is also an emeritus trustee at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Holt served as president of the West Virginia State Society of Washington D.C. in 1965 and 1966. She served as president of the Executive Women in Government Organization in 1982.