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Secretary of State's Office

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More than 50 years after she left office, West Virginia's first female Secretary of State accepted an honorary doctorate of humane letters from West Virginia University.

The honor came May 19 as Helen F. Holt's son, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., delivered WVU's commencement speech. Helen Holt, 99, now lives in Washington, D.C. 

When West Virginia Secretary of State D. Pitt O'Brien died in 1957, Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood tapped Holt to replace him, making her the first woman to serve in a statewide office in West Virginia. 

The feat would not be repeated until 1988, when voters elected Margaret Workman to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

From 1959 to 1960, Helen Holt served as West Virginia's assistant commissioner of public institutions, where she supervised women's prison and homes for the elderly. 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 standards for the care of the elderly and oversaw the construction of 1,000 modern long-term health care facilities with more than 100,000 beds. She was re-appointed by the following six presidents.

Helen Holt was born in rural Illinois in 1913. She studied at Stephens College and the Marine Biological Laboratory and earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in zoology from Northwestern University. 

She taught biology at National Park College in Forest Glen, Md., and Greenbrier College for Women in Lewisburg. In 1941 she married U.S. Sen. Rush Holt Sr., a Democrat who just finished his sole term in the Senate. 

Rush Holt Sr. served in the House of Delegates from 1942 to 1950 and switched to the GOP before seeking election as governor in 1952. Two years later, voters returned him to the House, where he served until his death on Feb. 8, 1955. At his death, Helen Holt was appointed to fill his unexpired term.

Helen Holt also is an emeritus trustee at the Kennedy Center in Washington. She has served as president of the West Virginia State Society and of the Executive Women in Government Organization.

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