At 97, Elizabeth Pfohl Campbell still checks in daily at WETA, the television station she founded in 1961 as the Greater Washington Educational Television Association. During all those years, the little woman with the upswept silver 'do has never drawn a paycheck, but she has maintained her belief in the importance of education, the power of television and the potential of women.
"My advice is to make as much of yourself as you can, get an education, and don't be afraid -- don't be afraid -- of life," she advises in a half-hour tribute airing Thursday at 8 p.m., "Elizabeth Campbell."
There's another lesson: If you can, keep working and live long so you can delight in what your efforts have wrought. WETA, the station Campbell founded to bring enrichment lessons to children, is now the third-largest producer for the Public Broadcasting System.
"The thing she always lit up about was WETA," said Joe Bruncsak, the producer who made the documentary. "She feels it's her greatest achievement. WETA's story is her story. As an employee, I do know the effect she has on the station. It sounds corny, but she really is the guiding light. She does rejuvenate us and remind us why we're working on public television. Most of us are here because we believe in it."
Elizabeth Pfohl, born in 1902 in Salem, N.C., grew up the daughter of a Moravian Church bishop. Unable to become a minister -- the career she says she would have chosen -- she turned to teaching. She earned her first degree at Salem College for Women, then left her parents' home alone for the first time to enroll for a master's degree at Columbia University in New York City.
She was the 27-year-old dean at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia when she met trial lawyer Edmund D. Campbell of Arlington, a widower with two children. She says in the film that she knew immediately she would marry him. Their 59-year marriage ended with his death at 96 in 1995.
Despite anger that was sometimes aimed at them, the Campbells worked to improve Arlington schools for both black and white children. She was elected to the Arlington school board, the first elected school board in the state. He fought Virginia's "massive resistance" ploy in 1959, when the state closed its schools rather than integrate them; and he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court for the one-person, one-vote principle for state legislatures. He won both cases. Their daughter and three sons grew up in a home lively with civic activism.
For Bruncsak, 33, who joined WETA's staff six years ago after having worked at a Fox station in Erie, Pa., making this tribute to Elizabeth Campbell became his own lesson.
"I had thought it was remarkable that she still came in [to work] and she was still active, but -- I hate to say it -- I still had preconceptions about old people as feeble or close-minded. But every time I would talk with her -- man! -- she was always with it. She has her fingers on the pulse of the station.
"Now, after getting to know her, I realize those preconceptions were misconceptions. It was a real eye-opener for me. The clich is that age is really a matter of attitude, not years, but it's true: She's a person who happens to be old."
Bruncsak also came away impressed by Elizabeth Campbell as a person, beyond her work as founder of the station that employs him.
"I've learned more about myself by delving into her life," he said. "She's very centered about herself and what she believes in. She brings that grace of the Victorian Age into modern times. She doesn't live in the past, she lives in the present, but she takes her core values into modern times."
Bruncsak said he was grateful WETA executives trusted him to do the program, his first for the station. "I want to do right by her and I want people to walk away not with just a video rsum, but with a sense of who she is -- that's the magic.
"Then I start thinking of the future, when she's not here anymore," he said. "That's going to be sad for a lot reasons. I think of her like Yoda: She's the wise person who gives us her vision. She teaches us, if we're willing to stop and listen. She keeps us on the path."