- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

This being Women’s History Month, today I pay homage to someone significant who changed the course of my life.

Thula E. Hampton, the former women’s page editor of the Alexandria Gazette, died of cancer Feb. 22 at the Stafford, Va., home of her niece, Joann Hepburn. She was 65.

This obituary hardly tells the story of the tiny woman who pulled no punches and was such a trailblazer that she insisted on being buried in a red dress.

Active in the Democratic Party for decades, Thula didn’t just talk progressive politics; she lived them.

When others were talking about civil rights in the early 1970s, she gave a young black mother, with no journalism experience, a chance.

When others were talking about women’s rights in the mid-1970s, she gave them a forum in a Southern newspaper, noting their “first woman” barrier-breaking accomplishments.

Short, petite and sporting a blond Dolly Parton hairstyle when we first met at the Alexandria National Bank in 1971, Ms. Hampton also was at the forefront of the movement to give senior citizens jobs and Medicare benefits.

Unfortunately, chain smoking led to the lung cancer that claimed her life despite a heroic battle. Ms. Hampton continued to undergo treatments just a week before her death, despite weighing a mere 78 pounds.

“She had a fighting spirit to the end,” said Carla Coldwell, who, with her husband, George, cared for her husband’s aunt for more than a year in their Stafford home. “She instilled in us to stand up for your rights and don’t let anybody step over you.”

To children, Ms. Hampton also instilled the value of research, obviously from her days as an editor. “She told them, ‘Read the book. You’ve got to get it out of the book’ and ‘It’s in the book,’ rather than to rely on their thoughts,” Mrs. Coldwell said.

Last week, Mrs. Coldwell and other family members displayed posters crammed with photographs of Ms. Hampton posing proudly or comically. They were placed around a flower-filled sitting room at the Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home in Alexandria. Many showed the fashionable Ms. Hampton dressed in fire-engine red outfits, an assortment of hats, and big glasses. Several showed her with VIPs and members of the Democratic Party, including Lady Bird Johnson, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and President Clinton.

“Aunt Thula just gave, and gave and gave to everybody,” Mrs. Coldwell said.

Ms. Hampton, a longtime resident of Alexandria who graduated from Groveton High School, was born in Nashville, Tenn., where she later attended Vanderbilt University. For many years, she cared for her ailing mother and father, and helped raise her nephew. She never married.

Ms. Hampton worked as a press relations officer with the United Mine Workers of America and the National Council of Senior Citizens. She worked as a freelance writer after retiring.

Inspiration is one of the main objectives of Women’s History Month, established in the United States to coincide with International Women’s Day, which is commemorated around the world tomorrow.

Its organizers, the National Women’s History Project (NWHP), seek to get information in elementary and secondary schools about women, past and present, who have contributed to this country.

“Their main audience is teachers, to get children to see, ‘Look, you, too, can do something exciting,’ and to raise their ambitions so they can see that they can play an interesting role in life,” said artist and former Virginia Delegate Marian Van Landingham, Alexandria Democrat. She is among this year’s recipients of the NWHP awards to be given out later this month at the Hay-Adams Hotel for her efforts in creating the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria.

“The factory provided a place of opportunity to become professional … and a way to get beyond art just being a hobby,” Ms. Van Landingham, 68, said yesterday.

Today, she paints large canvases of pathways “that you can walk into.” She said “the theme is from our ancestors, who followed paths and wondered what was around the corner.”

This is fitting, as the theme of this year’s Women’s History Month is “Women: Builders of Communities and Dreams.” Ms. Hampton set me on the path to realize my dream of becoming a writer when I was still a mathematically challenged bank teller, working part time at a drive-through window.

She was one of my regular customers. I saw that she worked at the Gazette and told her of my journalism aspirations. One day, I shoved a sorry set of scribbling through the teller drawer (along with her cash) and the rest, as they say, is “herstory.” At first, I covered ladies-club luncheons for $10 a story. Then Ms. Hampton asked me to write about women who were being hired in nontraditional jobs, such as the city’s first female bus driver or firefighter. Finally, I was assigned a series on women seeking public office.

I think Ms. Hampton encouraged me because, like her, I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind. When one of the 17th Century Colonial Dames called me a “niggra,” and was upset by my bold-for-a-black-girl retort, Ms. Hampton, who was white, did not fire me, as I expected. Rather, she gave me an even better assignment.

“Aunt Thula was always sticking up for the underdog,” Mrs. Coldwell said.

Several years ago, I spoke to Ms. Hampton on the phone. She wondered whether I remembered her. “You must be kidding,” I said. I always mention her when asked how my career started.

Unfortunately, we lost touch, and I did not know how sick she was.

Ms. Hampton’s sister, Barbara Ann Ingle, of Alexandria, told me that “she talked about you. … She’d be proud you came” to her wake.

No, I am the one who is proud to have known Ms. Hampton, to whom I will be eternally grateful. See, all it takes is one hand reaching out to help another for both to realize a dream.

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