April 21, 2018
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  • Marjorie Holt, a 14-year member of Congress and a resident of Severna Park for 67 years, passed away in January, leaving a legacy of influence on both the local and national political scene.
    Photo Provided
    Marjorie Holt, a 14-year member of Congress and a resident of Severna Park for 67 years, passed away in January, leaving a legacy of influence on both the local and national political scene.
  • Marjorie Holt, a 14-year member of Congress and a resident of Severna Park for 67 years, passed away in January, leaving a legacy of influence on both the local and national political scene.
    Photo Provided
    Marjorie Holt, a 14-year member of Congress and a resident of Severna Park for 67 years, passed away in January, leaving a legacy of influence on both the local and national political scene.
  • Marjorie Holt, a 14-year member of Congress and a resident of Severna Park for 67 years, passed away in January, leaving a legacy of influence on both the local and national political scene.
    Photo Provided
    Marjorie Holt, a 14-year member of Congress and a resident of Severna Park for 67 years, passed away in January, leaving a legacy of influence on both the local and national political scene.

“Barriers Meant Nothing To Her”

Dylan Roche
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February 6, 2018

Remembering The Legacy Of Former Rep. Marjorie S. Holt

When she was 11 years old, a little girl who would one day be known to the nation as Rep. Marjorie S. Holt – then, in 1931, named Marjorie Lucille Sewell – went out to take her father’s 1929 Chevrolet for a joy drive. In those days before a legal driving age, the little girl had already been learning to operate a car from her father, Edward, but she had never gone by herself, though he had often encouraged her to drive faster when the roads were straight and there was nobody else around. She backed out of the driveway and went for a spin around the block.

“My dad came into the yard, and each time I drove around, he asked me to stop,” she wrote in a 2009 journal of handwritten recollections, the closest thing to a memoir ever compiled by Maryland’s first female member of Congress. “When I finally decided I was going to be in big trouble and drove into the driveway, he only complimented me on not having a disaster.”

This was only the beginning of what would become a theme in her life – the life of a woman who never let herself be told she couldn’t do something, a woman described as a pioneer and a trailblazer by Governor Larry Hogan when he spoke at her funeral on January 27 at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church, where hundreds of people gathered to say goodbye to the late Severna Park resident. “She didn’t just put a crack in the glass ceiling,” Hogan said. “She crashed right through it.”

Maybe this was because of the skills that she learned from her father, who not only taught her to drive but also to hunt and to be determined. “Daddy encouraged me to always do better,” she said in her memoir. “He said I could do anything I wanted to do and urged me to aim a little higher.” She always attributed this to her being the eldest of four daughters, so her father raised her as he would a son. Growing up in a low-income community in Jacksonville, Florida, she was inclined to play with the neighborhood boys, ride bicycles and catch snakes.

Although her family was poor, she was never aware of it, and with few luxuries to begin with, she never felt the hurt of the Great Depression the way others did.

But as she got older, Holt found herself facing other adversities. When she was a teenager, her parents divorced and she went to live with her farmer aunt and uncle in Alabama. “This,” she recalled in her memoir, “is where my life fell apart.”

She left high school to get married and start a family, but she eventually divorced her husband and returned to Florida as a single teenage mother with a young daughter, Rachel, and big ambitions: She was determined to get her GED, pursue higher education, and start a career. “It was a huge mountain she had to overcome, but she did it,” said Holt’s granddaughter, Marjorie Tschantre, who explained that Holt relied on family both immediate and extended to help her with child care while she took classes. “As challenging as it was, she was always quick to applaud the reliability of her family who was there to help her.”

It was at the age of 25 that Holt’s life – both personally and professionally – began to take a turn for the better. Though she had been what she would always describe as a “loose cannon” up until that point, while she was enrolling in classes at Jacksonville Junior College, she met her future husband, Duncan Holt, freshly returned from service in World War II.

The two of them married a year later and transferred to University of Florida, where Holt pursued her Juris Doctor. She was one of only five women accepted into her class, and though she faced discrimination and outright harassment from her professors – one teacher even described her as a “rare combination of sex and brains” – she graduated in the top 2 percent of her class in 1949.

A job opportunity for Duncan at Westinghouse brought the Holts north in 1950, first to Pennsylvania, then to Maryland. They lived in Harundale while they commissioned a $3,000 home built on a $2,000 waterfront property in Severna Park. Holt passed the Maryland bar exam and took a job with Anne Arundel County Health and Human Services.

A desire to help others and represent their interests drove her to dabble in the local political scene. “She wanted to represent people honestly,” recalled Rachel Tschantre, Holt’s daughter. “She really wanted to make a difference so that things that were neglected could be attended to. She always wanted to leave something better and leave it healthy.”

Holt was appointed a supervisor of elections in Anne Arundel County in 1960, but she faced opposition when she ran for political office as a female Republican, continually hearing the same message: that she was a nice lady, but people wouldn’t vote for a woman.

She surprised everyone in 1966 when she defeated longtime political stalwart Louis Phipps Jr. in a race for the clerk of the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, where she served until 1972. She always described the circuit court clerk as her favorite job, one where she would help people without making any tough policy decisions. As she married couples and helped businesspeople and contractors obtain licenses, she built up a base of followers.

Her next chance to run for political office came about by what many would call good luck but she always believed to be divine intervention. Following a 1970s census, the newly formed 4th Congressional District opened up, meaning Holt faced no incumbent to wedge her out this time.

This new district had more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans, but Holt’s followers were loyal, and she won with 59 percent of the vote. It was the first of seven successive terms, each of which earned bipartisan support. Her 1980 run even earned her a career high of 71 percent of the vote.

“She decided she wasn’t subject to a label, and it didn’t matter who was telling her no,” said Judge Cathy Vitale, a Severna Park native who credits Holt’s mentorship in helping her through her political career on the County Council and in the House of Delegates. “She didn’t want to be a ‘lady lawyer’ or a ‘lady politician,’” Vitale continued. “She wanted to be a good lawyer and a good politician. … She showed the men that the back room – where they sat with their cigars and their conversations – is open to anyone who wants to push the door open, but you have to push it open. She said, ‘Open this door, or I’m gonna bust it down.’ … She was so confident in herself that labels and barriers meant nothing to her. When people told her no, she fought harder.”

Among Holt’s many accomplishments while in office were her work on the budget committee, through which she stood for cutbacks in all nonmilitary governmental spending, and her lone-dove speech against the Declaration of Interdependence by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, when she told the rest of the House, “If we surrender our independence to a new world order dominated by the Soviet Union and its clients, we will be betraying our historic ideals of freedom and self-government.”

Through it all, she remained determined to maintain a close relationship with her constituents. “She had a great regard for people,” said her daughter Rachel. “She really did serve her area and aim to be a representative of the people she was serving.”

After 14 years in Congress, in 1986, she retired from politics to spend more time with family, though she continued to be a community leader in other ways. She took on more volunteer work through Woods Church – where she had worshipped since moving to Severna Park, and had been the first woman elected as an elder – as well as through Meals on Wheels and Light Street Soup Kitchen. She also remained active with the Severna Park Republican Women’s Club, of which she had been a founding member.

Holt leaves behind three children, eight grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandson, as well as countless friends and mentees who embrace the lessons she shared and the example she set. “She spent every day of her life with an elegance and grace that is lost on today’s population,” said Vitale, who strongly remembers Holt’s self-honesty and self-assuredness even when it wasn’t easy. “You can listen to arguments, you can change positions, you can vote a different way, but you have to be true to yourself.”

Somehow, everyone agrees, Holt made it all look so easy, but as her granddaughter Marjorie emphasized, that might be because it was – at least, in a way.

“Helping people was as natural as eating or breathing,” she said. “She loved to love people and she loved to be loved. None of it was ever for glory; it was all just for love.”


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