Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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What would we make today of 1950s Arlington school board member Helen Lane?

This one-of-a-kind education activist not only won appointment to the board in 1957 with a mission to prevent desegregation, she emerged as a friend to the American Nazi Party and its notorious local founder George Lincoln Rockwell.

Yet she appears to have lived what, at the time, was a mainstream Arlington life.

Born in Illinois the daughter of a famous architect, Helen Scrymgeour Lane came to Arlington in 1951 with a B.A. from the University of Michigan and a teaching certificate. She worked as a Treasury clerk with son Robert enrolled in the private St. Stephens Episcopal School.

Her first taste of the Arlington spotlight came months after Virginia’s General Assembly in special session with Gov. Thomas Stanley enacted its plan to resist the Supreme Court’s 1954 order for school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Arlington having had its power to elect its school board removed by Richmond, the county board picked the 50-year-old Lane after she wrote to the Daily Sun of the need for a conservative.

Profiles in the local press revealed that Lane when in her 20s did not consider herself right-wing. But “as I gained experience, I became more conservative.” She supported the anti-communist crusade of Sen. Joe McCarthy.

Virginia’s States’ Rights Party backed her for the school board as “godsend.” In 1956, she had been one of 1,151 out of 40,000 Arlingtonians to vote for the States’ Rights presidential candidate.

Lane was up-front about her goal of maintaining segregation by legal means. Board minutes show her focused on quality education and competition rather than social issues. She backed “greater emphasis on personal excellence and less on group activity.” American children “have been weakened by too many rights and too few duties,” she said. She sought tight budgets – less spending on luxuries like audio-visual aids, and “no more palaces.”

Once in office, Lane mocked “progressive education” and “professional educationists.” Students “should be taught to do their tasks well—to learn the joy of, their tasks,” she said, with “less emphasis on the pleasant aspects.”

After her son transferred to Williamsburg Junior High, she caused a scandal by removing — with indelible ink — a personal comment on his report card written by math teacher Edwin Granger. She argued it was unfair to have it on his permanent record. Lane failed to show up at the county board meeting that investigated.

At the end of the ‘50s, Lane was reported to be helping the fledgling American Nazis by duplicating their racist fliers on a press in her basement. (Homebuilder Barry Chamberlain, who later renovated her former home on Rock Spring Road, told me he found no press.)

Lane went to law school at American University and became an attorney. When Rockwell was assassinated in August 1967, she represented John Patler, the fellow Nazi convicted of the murder; he pleaded not guilty.

To many, Lane seemed a typical middle-class Arlingtonian who liked music, antiques and gardening. Jean Dickson, who was married to the liberal state Del. Wally Dickson, told me her then-husband became lunch buddies with Lane while they were in law school. “It’s amazing that this woman so nice and pleasant,” Dickson said, “was a friend of Rockwell’s.”

Lane died May 8, 1996, at age 90, in Shenandoah, Va.

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Passions have heated up in normally placid Westover over the proposal to slap on a local historic district designation for its World War II-era garden apartments that are threatened by builders of luxury townhomes.

At the Nov. 30 public hearing at Swanson Middle School, the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board voted 6-2-1 to conduct further study. But some locals fear such status would harm home values and tie their hands should they seek to renovate.

“Chairman Joan Lawrence had her hands full” keeping order and the tone civil during comments from 35 speakers amid the boos and jeering, I was told by attendee Tom Dickinson. “Some were so emotional their hands were shaking and voices quivering over wild rumors about bureaucracy run amok, an initiative with no basis, government overreaching.”