A Pioneer in Education
Campbell’s belief in the value of education drove her life’s work, from campaigning to desegregate Arlington Country Public School after the Supreme Court's 1954 and 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decisions, to founding WETA (Washington Educational Television Association) in 1961.
Elizabeth Pfohl Campbell was born in 1902 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to a Moravian minister and music teacher. Unable to pursue a career in the Moravian Church (women were not allowed to minister), Campbell pursued a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in education at Salem College and Columbia University, respectively.
Following her graduation from Columbia, Campbell returned to her former high school, Salem Academy, to teach high school and college level English and literature courses. In 1927, she transitioned into education administration, serving as a dean at Moravian College for Women in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. After two years she moved to Staunton, Virginia to serve as dean at Mary Baldwin College (now Mary Baldwin University), where she met her future husband, Edmund (Ed) D. Campbell. In 1936, they married and moved to Arlington, Virginia.
First Woman Elected to Virginia School Board
After moving to Arlington, Elizabeth Campbell became an active community member. She dedicated herself to improving Arlington’s educational opportunities through PTA leadership, the Citizens’ Committee for School Improvement, and founded the Rock Spring Cooperative Nursery School.
Although her first two children attended Arlington schools, Campbell taught Latin at the National Cathedral School and so her twin sons attended the affiliated Beauvoir School. Despite this, her concern for the quality of Arlington County’s public schools never waned, and after she was asked to run for the school board by a group of Arlington citizens, Campbell entered the race for the first elected school board.
After an “arduous campaign,” Elizabeth Campbell led the ticket in 1947 and was the first woman elected to a Virginia School Board. She ran on two main issues: “to provide public kindergarten and to provide education for every child—the handicapped and those who were especially bright.” During her campaign, she was criticized for putting her children into private school, to which she responded, “As soon as the Arlington schools are good enough, I will bring [my] children back,” and that is what she did.
As a member of the School Board, Campbell worked with the four other members to remove the reigning Superintendent, Fletcher Kemp, who was committed to maintaining the current school system, and replacing him with a Superintendent who would prioritize a system that would benefit all students. After a year and a half, the Board successfully installed William Early as Arlington County Superintendent.
Campbell also worked to develop a Special Education program, starting the first special education program in Northern Virginia.
Campbell was reelected and served until 1956, when the Virginia legislature rescinded the law permitting the election of school board members as part of what came to be known as “massive resistance.” She was appointed to one additional term in 1960.
During Campbell’s tenure on the Arlington School Board, she spent three terms as the Board’s chairperson. She was the first female member of the school board and the only woman in her time to serve as chairperson.
First Lady of Public Television
In 1957, Campbell became the first president of the Greater Washington Education Television Association (GWETA) after being recruited by Willard Kiplinger to head the organization. The GWETA was formed after the FCC began reserving channels for educational use in 1952 with the purpose “to furnish a non-profit and noncommercial education television broadcast service to the Greater Washington Area.”
Kiplinger sought Campbell to head GWETA for the same reason Campbell accepted: her lifelong dedication to education. Campbell’s first goal as president of GWETA was “serving the schools.” Knowing that science was in particular need, Campbell worked with twelve Washington metropolitan school Superintendents and PTA organizations to raise money to launch a half-hour program for fifth and sixth grades called “Time for Science.”
"Time for Science" launched on the Washington station WTTG in 1958 and ran for three years; it was GWETA’s first broadcast and provided enough community support for WETA to apply for an FCC license to activate UHF Channel 26.
WETA Channel 26 went on air for the first time on October 2, 1961 with the broadcast, "The New Era."
WETA was strapped for money at its start—its offices were in the Campbell home because the organization could not afford to rent offices—and Campbell spent much of her time as president seeking funds to keep the station running. According to a 1989 Washington Post article, Campbell was not particularly bothered asking for money, and believed that people with wealth appreciated learning about worthy causes to which to donate.
In 1972, WETA acquired an official premise in Shirlington—out of which it still operates to this day. Prior to securing their own studios, the station broadcast from Yorktown High School for three years, American University for a summer, and Howard University from 1965 to 1972. While operating out of the Howard University’s men’s gymnasium, WETA staff taught courses in the School for Communications in lieu of rent.
Elizabeth Campbell served as president of WETA until 1971 when she stepped down to become WETA’s Vice President for Community Affairs—a job she held until her death at the age of 101. WETA went on to become a world-renowned public television station, premiering Sesame Street, the Watergate hearings, and Ken Burns’ The Civil War among much more.
Three Great Educational Institutions
Campbell once said, “There are three great educational institutions in this country: public schools, public libraries, and public television.” Her life work speaks to her dedication to public access to educational opportunities, and can be seen in her personal papers and oral history at the Arlington Public Library’s Center for Local History.