To live to be 97 years old is a remarkable achievement in itself. To arrive at such an age looking forward and not backward, going to work every day with new ideas, is a marvel.
Last week admirers of Elizabeth Pfohl Campbell filled the Mayflower Hotel's ballroom to celebrate her birthday and watch a half-hour program that couldn't begin to mention more than a few of her starring roles and those of her family. The show will be broadcast at 8 p.m. on Dec. 16--on WETA (Channel 26), of course.
In 1957, Mrs. Campbell founded and became the first president of the Greater Washington Educational Television Association--which in 1961 created the public television station and in 1970 its radio sibling, WETA-FM. Today she serves as community affairs vice president, the liaison between the television station and an audience that covers all of greater Washington.
She dedicated her long life to education and has received honorary doctorates from four universities and a college, and some 50 broadcasting and communications awards.
All this while fulfilling her role as a devoted mother of four and the wife and partner of Edmund D. Campbell. The late lawyer's 1958 federal court victory ended segregation of public schools in Virginia; he also argued the 1962 Supreme Court case that resulted in reapportionment of state legislatures according to population.
Campbell encouraged his wife's projects in their nearly 60 years of marriage. She liked to joke that "my husband's place is behind me, where men belong." Then she would add, "I mean, I need the support."
Introducing her at the party, WETA President Sharon Percy Rockefeller explained that after almost a century, Mrs. Campbell is fixed on her goal and explains it well to others. It is said that the staff checks in with her every morning.
The great lady raised the money to establish WETA-TV from the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, the late publisher Willard Kiplinger and other philanthropists. It is now the Public Broadcasting Service's third-largest station, producing programs such as "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," "Washington Week in Review," "In Performance at the White House," "A Capitol Fourth" and several Ken Burns documentary series.
Mrs. Campbell said she began to realize the appeal and power of television--and its possibilities for education--when their children went next door every day to watch "Howdy Doody." She reacted by creating "Time for Science" for Washington station WTTG in 1958, using animals in a hotel tub and narration by science teachers. When she received an American Women in Radio and Television award, she summed up her belief that "television has become the lifeline for lifetime learning."
Mrs. Campbell had years of successes before television. She earned a master's degree at Columbia University and served as dean at Moravian College for Women in Bethlehem, Pa. (1928-1929) and as dean (1929-1936) of Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.
She and Edmund Campbell, then a widower with two children, married on June 16, 1936, and lived in Arlington. A few years later they had twins--both of whom became preachers.
In 1948, Mrs. Campbell became the first woman elected to a Virginia school board. She was named chairman of the Arlington County School Board three times, serving until 1964. She is remembered for planning special education for handicapped, mentally disabled and gifted children. During that time, while her husband worked to integrate public schools, the family had to put up with midnight calls in which they were called communists--and worse.
Today, in addition to her WETA duties, Mrs. Campbell is a member of 13 organizations from the Home Moravian Church to the Woman's National Democratic Club.
So what comes next? Seven birthdays ago, Elizabeth Campbell said: "There's freedom in being old. You accept what you are, and other people have to as well. Old age opens doors for you. You have to recognize the fact that you as an individual are on this Earth and you have a reason for being here. You might not know what that reason is in the beginning, but you'll find it. You don't have to look very hard for needs because they're all around you."
After Mrs. Campbell's most recent birthday celebration, the Chronicler followed her as she propelled her wheelchair--with the same aplomb with which she drove her car in recent years. Though years had gone by since we talked, she remembered my name and, I suspect, most of the names of the several hundred other people who came to celebrate this living legend.
CAPTION: WETA's Elizabeth Campbell greets guests at a Mayflower Hotel reception.