WETA went on the air on October 2, 1961 after an eight-year effort to bring public television to Greater Washington by a group of visionaries and public television pioneers led by Arlington luminary Elizabeth P. Campbell — WETA's first president and longtime leader — and Washington publisher Willard Kiplinger, Chairman of the WETA Board of Trustees. (above: late 1950s, Campbell with GWETA colleagues).
In 1952, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reserved television channels for noncommercial educational use, and UHF Channel 26 was set aside for the District of Columbia. The next year, the Greater Washington Educational Television Association, GWETA, organized and led by prominent Washington publisher Willard Kiplinger, was incorporated in the District of Columbia for the purpose of activating Channel 26 "to furnish a non-profit and noncommercial educational television broadcast service to the Greater Washington Area." Kiplinger raised vital funds in the community to support the nascent group and to develop the fledgling station, WETA, which would grow out of GWETA. He was among the original public trustees of the station, serving as Chairman of the WETA Board of Trustees, and he developed the membership program through which individuals could support WETA. Kiplinger was honorary Chairman at the time of his death in 1967.
In 1956, to head GWETA, Kiplinger recruited Elizabeth Campbell, who had already made education her life's work, serving as dean at Mary Baldwin College and working to desegregate the public schools in Arlington County. Elected GWETA president in 1957, Campbell would go on to guide WETA for more than 40 years, leading the organization from a fledgling local station to a multi-media company of national renown. Campbell continued to serve the institution until her death in 2004 at the age of 101. Well into her 90s, Elizabeth Campbell continued to come to work every day (and from the start never accepted a paycheck) as WETA's Vice President of Community Affairs. She remains an inspiration at WETA.
Even before she helped to found WETA, Elizabeth Campbell had made her mark as a leader. Instilled with deep faith and a passion to teach, she championed free, quality education and was active in the community all her life.
Her goal, and that of her colleagues at GWETA and then WETA, was to do more than build a TV and radio station — it was to create an educational institution dedicated to enriching the lives of the people of Greater Washington.
A lifetime of service
As a young woman, Elizabeth Campbell was given the gift of education in an era when many were denied the opportunity. She put it to good use, later serving as dean of two institutions of higher learning, including Virginia's Mary Baldwin College.
She married, raised children and could have simply enjoyed the life and quiet prosperity of a lady of society in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband Ed, a successful lawyer. But this idealistic woman who prized education and recognized the opportunities it could provide would not rest while so many Americans were denied the same.
Despite the personal costs, Elizabeth supported her husband's successful legal campaign to end segregation in Virginia schools. She chose to work for change by earning a seat on the Arlington School Board — the first woman ever elected to a school board in Virginia. When she had made her contribution and the campaign was won, she and a group of fellow visionaries banded together to pursue a new goal: educational television for Greater Washington.
Elizabeth Campbell helped to found WETA all those years ago convinced that it could be a democratizing force for education and an alternative voice in television's "Great Wasteland" of trite commercialism. She was right.
Educator, mother, idealist, possessed of the audacity to attempt great things, Elizabeth Campbell dared to create change in our community and succeeded.
On the power of television...
“There is something about television that no other medium has. There is a power within it that is more than just what you see and hear.”
“Education opens doors. A life without education can be one of insularity and emptiness. Our schools and universities are vital resources, but it has been my belief for a very long time that television and radio can be powerful educators as well. However, television and radio are simply broadcast tools — it is the programming that counts. That's why public broadcasting is so important.”
On public television...
“There are three great educational institutions in this country: public schools, public libraries, and public television.”
"I could not live with myself if I did not stand up publicly for what I knew was right."