Helen Holt: Teacher, Pioneer, Mother

July 20 2013

Bob Braun, a former longtime columnist for The Star-Ledger, is following Rush Holt’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. He will be sharing his thoughts and his stories from the campaign trail from time to time. 

When Helen Froelich Holt came to New Jersey to campaign for her son Rush, she wasn’t just filling the role of a candidate’s mother. She was demonstrating a family tradition of public service. She was presenting a personal history that, in many ways, explains Rush Holt Jr., and dramatizing why this candidate for the Senate is a different sort of man, a different sort of politician.

``He’s not a talker, he’s a doer,’’ says Helen of her son. She will turn 100 three days after the August 13 primary. ``Rush, of course, can make great speeches but—and this he learned from his father—you only talk about things you know and you know about them before you start talking.’’ 

It’s known that Rush Holt Sr. was the “boy senator” from West Virginia, the youngest man in history to be elected to the U.S. Senate—and the model for Jimmy Stewart’s character in the classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’’  He was a fiercely independent and outspoken critic of corruption in government and of war as a means of settling international disputes.

But knowing the story of Rush’s mother probably teaches more about the man who wants to be New Jersey’s senator. Rush was born after his father left the Senate and only six when he died. He grew up with a single mother of three, a woman who broke traditions and glass ceilings while, at the same time, honoring values that anyone of any age will recognize as the best part of American history.

Helen offers a line about her son that is the perfect introduction to her influence: ``Rush is probably the only member of Congress who slept in a women’s dormitory.’’ 

As a little boy, Rush came to live in that dormitory because his recently widowed mother—his father died of cancer at 49—needed a job to take care of him, his older sister Helen and a nephew David who had been adopted into the family. She was hired as a teacher at Greenbrier College, a two-year school for women in Lewisburg, WVA, and came to live in a dorm suite with her children.

Helen Froelich studied science at Stephens College and Northwestern University, both in Illinois where she grew up. She earned a graduate degree in biology at a time when few women pursued careers in science. 

`` I liked  science. I had a good biology teacher in high school and I wanted to go on with it because it was a challenge,” she remembers. “Girls weren’t supposed to do things like that.”

She had a family steeped in the values of hard work and success: “My parents wanted me to do anything I wanted to do. They just expected me to be the best. My father was a perfectionist.”

Helen’s father, William Edward Froelich, was the son of an immigrant from Alsace, the land then claimed by both France and Germany. Her great-grandfather, a master cabinet-maker, died on Ellis Island while waiting to be allowed into this country. He was with his son.

The son, Helen’s grandfather, came to Gridley, IL, a village in central Illinois that still has a population of fewer than 1,500.  Helen’s family owned a furniture store. The store also crafted coffins and her father, himself a cabinet maker, went to school to learn how to be a funeral director. The memorial home bearing the family name remains in Gridley.

Helen’s father served as mayor of Gridley for more than 20 years. He presided over the paving of the streets and creation of a central water system. He bought houses, renovated them and rented them out; when the tenants paid an amount equivalent to the value of the houses, he signed over title to them so they could own their own homes.

``I think that’s where Rush gets his sense of always wanting to help people,’’ says Helen. Rush often spent summers with his grandparents in Illinois and worked for his grandfather.

After earning her degrees, Helen took a job teaching science at National Park College, just outside Washington, DC. She met Rush Sr. through his sister, a member of the same sorority.

``I wasn’t interested, I didn’t want to get involved with anyone in politics’’ she recalls, despite knowing the handsome young senator from West Virginia was considered “the most eligible bachelor” in Washington.  Helen was interested in science and teaching. “I never thought of getting married.”

Besides, she was a Republican and Sen. Rush Holt was a Democrat. They married just as his career in Washington was coming to an end—he had lost a primary battle. ``I was only in his Senate office once.”

Once married, Helen Holt became a traditional wife and mother. She adopted West Virginia as her home state—“When anyone asks, I say I am from West Virginia.”  She says her job was to take care of her husband and children. Her husband served in the West Virginia legislature and ran for governor; he lost in a close race. By that time, he had become, like his wife, a Republican.

Rush Holt Sr. died of cancer in 1955 after a long struggle with the disease. Helen was appointed to his vacant seat and then later became secretary of state in West Virginia. She also was appointed to a position with the Federal Housing Administration where she helped developed policies for the elderly.

She watched with pride as her son Rush Jr. became a prominent physicist who taught at Swarthmore College and then was appointed to help lead the Princeton Plasma Physics laboratory. She was happy he was following her into the world of science she loved.

``He was interested in everything and he always did well in school,’’ she says.

Then came a day—it was Christmas and the family was together at dinner—when Helen Holt heard some shocking news. 

``Rush sat at the dinner table and he said, ‘You know I’m thinking of running for Congress.’”

“I said, ‘Oh, no!’”

Her son explained Congress needed somebody different.  Somebody who understood science. But there was more, Helen recalls. He said he was going to run as a Democrat.

`` So, with that, I got up and left the table. I just didn’t know what to think or say. But, then, when he ran, I came and helped him. I still am helping him and always will.’’

And not just because Rush is her son. Sure, she talks about his intelligence, his knowledge of science, his honesty, his support for education and the environment, his willingness to help others, his outspokenness on matters of war and peace and civil rights, his willingness to work on bipartisan efforts, his advocacy of women’s issues.

``I might be a Republican but I have always voted for the best candidate, Democrat or Republican. And, of course, it’s so clear—Rush Holt is far and away the best person for the job.’’