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WVU awards honorary doctorate to former secretary of state

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West Virginia's first and current female secretaries of state have strong ties to West Virginia University.

Helen Holt, 99, now lives in Washington, D.C., but she served as secretary of state in 1957, when then-Gov. Cecil Underwood appointed her to the position. She received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from WVU at Sunday's graduation, more than 50 years after she became the first woman in the state to hold a statewide office.

Current Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is a graduate of the school and was the first female Mountaineer mascot.

From 1959 to 1960, Holt served as the state's assistant commissioner of public institutions, making her responsible for the 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 nursing homes. Through her work at the Federal Housing Administration, and later the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Holt established nationwide 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, at no cost to the taxpayer. She was reappointed to her position by the six succeeding presidents.

Holt was born in Illinois in 1913, and she studied at Stephens College and the Marine Biological Laboratory. She received her bachelor's and master's degrees in zoology from Northwestern University. She then taught biology at National Park College in Forest Glen, Md., and Greenbrier College for Women in Lewisburg. In 1941, she married Sen. Rush Holt, Sr., D-W.Va., after his only term in the U.S. Senate. After he served in Washington, Rush Holt returned to West Virginia and was elected to the House of Delegates. He passed away while in office, and Helen Holt was appointed to fill his unexpired term.

Holt is mother of current Rep. Rush Holt, Jr., D-N.J.