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In Memory of Elizabeth Campbell

Dozens come to reception honoring WETA founder who led Arlington schools into age of integration.

Broadcasters national and local, educators from around the region and dozens of Arlingtonians came to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Monday night for a reception in memory of Elizabeth Pfohl Campbell, who died Friday at 101.

Campbell, a co-founder of St. Peter’s and Arlington-based public broadcaster WETA, was first a pioneer in education in Arlington, winning a seat on the county’s first elected school board.

With her husband Ed Campbell, Elizabeth Campbell also led the fight against “Massive Resistance,” the effort to keep Virginia’s schools segregated led by Virginia’s then-senator, Harry Byrd. In an effort to keep black students out of schools set aside for white Virginians, Byrd and the Richmond government threatened to close any Virginia schools targeted for integration.

Some of those honoring Campbell Monday owed their education to her. “I went to high school with her kids,” said Larry Suiter, an Arlington attorney. “She was largely responsible for the fact that we graduated.”

Others came to honor a woman who became an Arlington institution. “Anybody that starts at 50, 60, and goes to the end of her life, to encompass all the things she did, is one of a kind,” said Julius Fauntleroy, a technician at WETA from 1968.

As she aged, she didn’t slow down, working at WETA until she was in her late-90s. “Every morning she walked with us,” said Esther Dadson, one of Campbell’s caretakers in later years. “Every Wednesday she went to get her hair done. Every Saturday, she went to a restaurant.”

“There’s not enough good words in a dictionary or thesaurus to describe her,” said Fauntleroy. “She was a lady beyond reproach.”

CAMPBELL LIVED HER life in two different public arenas: with a degree in education, she spent much of her first 50 years as an advocate for Arlington schools, including the fight against segregation in the late 1950s. At the same time, she was beginning the work that would occupy her second five decades: public broadcasting.

Those two pursuits were not distinct and discreet, said Susanna Campbell, Elizabeth’s granddaughter. “They both fed into each other. She was already involved in the community, and saw television as an incredible educational tool, because of its reach.”

Ultimately, her work on education and broadcast had the same end: “Her focus was always people,” said Sue Richmond, a 36-year employee of WETA, who worked closely with Campbell on building membership. “She saw people that needed things, whether it was children that needed better schools, or television that needed better programming,” and she set out to fill the need.

That sometimes meant acting as matchmaker for WETA employees, or pushing them to beautify the station’s offices. “For years, we were in an old Coca-Cola bottling plant,” said Richmond. “She had the employees bring in tulips and plant them around the outside of the building.”

“IF IT HADN’T been for Elizabeth Campbell, there would never have been a WETA, and there never would have been a NewsHour,” said Jim Lehrer. But Campbell’s support for him, and other broadcasters with wider and smaller audiences, didn’t end with just putting together the station, he said. “She was always very interested in people having their say.”

That interest was passed on in the Campbell family, with two sons that became ministers and Susanna Campbell working with the United Nations in Africa. “She was always supportive of me,” said Susanna. “She didn’t want me to be far away from her. But finally, she said, ‘Do what you want to do.’”

Faith and service, especially through education, were part of Elizabeth Campbell’s upbringing in the Moravian Church. They were important to her until the end of her life, said Dadson.

“Every Sunday, she went to church. The only Sunday she missed was the week before she died,” said Dadson.

While Campbell was already gone on Monday night, the remembrance was not an evening of tears.

Many of her friends, employees and family laughed as they remembered her: “You never told Mrs. Campbell ‘No,’” said Jim Laughlin.

“She was more respected than any person I know, other than my mother,” said Fauntleroy.

“It’s only later in life that you learn who they are to other people,” said Susanna Campbell of her grandparents.

The memorial was a gathering of friends. It was the way Elizabeth Campbell died, surrounded by her friends Dadson, Agnes Krah and Julie Essiaw.

“She made us promise that we would be with her to the end,” said Dadson. “And we were — we were at the hospital when she closed her eyes.”