Edith Taliaferro Carper, who worked full- and part-time at IEEE-USA for more than 25 years, was way ahead of her time. According to one of her cousins, Anne Waldrop: “She was a pioneer among women – musician, business woman, comedian, intellectual and explorer – are all words that suit her.” Edith’s cousin added: “Housewife was one word that was not in her vocabulary.” Edith T. Carper died on 17 April, at age 92, in Washington, after a brief illness.
Edith was an outspoken woman and a liberal Democrat who grew up in Rocky Mount, Va. She graduated from Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., and received her Master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Anne, her cousin, described Edith as “a voracious reader and an inveterate traveler.”
She was a political analyst and lobbyist for Aerospace Industries Corp. in Los Angeles. In the 1970s, Ivan Getting, who led Aerospace Industries and would become IEEE president in 1978, recommended Edith to serve on the IEEE Washington Office legislative staff, where she was employed full-time for more than 20 years.
Before she joined IEEE-USA, Edith was one of three authors of Case Studies in American Government. One of her tracts on lobbying and the natural gas bill in 1962 was cited as a reference in The Presidential Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower. Another tract, published in 1960, focused on a defense appropriations rider.
Edith launched the first IEEE-USA legislative report for U.S. IEEE members and was a frequent contributor to several IEEE-USA publications. In 2004, she wrote an article for IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer titled “The Hubble’s in Trouble.”
As IEEE-USA Managing Director Chris Brantley observed, Edith spent a large portion of her Washington career at a time of “big personalities” – ranging from Lyndon Johnson to Tip O’Neill. But Edith had little tolerance for inflated personalities – in government, or in her career, and could puncture a big ego in a nanosecond! In Edith’s own family, she had a cousin who did not rise to national prominence, but who was an attorney who helped to advance civil rights in Mississippi in the 1960s.
Edith knew her away around the Capitol better than anyone. Her cousin recalls visiting Edith in a basement apartment in Georgetown in the 1950s. She commented on the irony of Edith’s last years spent in The Georgetown Retirement Residence – not far from this basement apartment. Edith grappled with big personalities at the retirement residence, too, where the former senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, and leading feminist Betty Friedan, also lived out their days.
Edith related to me how in 2005, she and Betty Friedan attended a memorial for Senator McCarthy at the National Cathedral, and both vied for the attention of former President Clinton, who joined other dignitaries at the memorial. Living in a condo several blocks from The Georgetown Retirement Residence, I visited Edith thereseveral times – enjoying her company at the Kennedy Center and the Phillips Collection. We also walked on the beautiful tree-lined street where she lived.
Edith attended St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square in Washington, the “Church of the Presidents,” where every President since James Madison attended regular or occasional services. It was fitting that Edith’s memorial was held at St. John’s. In addition to several dozen family members, friends and former co-workers, there was a staff member from The Georgetown Retirement Residence who escorted a woman resident of the facility in a wheel chair – perhaps the wife of a senator whom I had met through Edith at the retirement residence.
I was introduced to Edith on my arrival at the IEEE Washington Office in August 1981. Her wit and irreverence were immediately revealed. She was an excellent grammarian and corrected staff on our “egregious grammatical errors”… Edith played the piano for us at holiday receptions at her Capitol Hill home and at local hotels. Her cousin said Edith had perfect pitch and could “play by ear.” She regaled us with stories of her trips abroad, often accompanied by her niece.
Women staff took a special liking to Edith, and reveled in her success as a confident and an independent woman. After Edith retired from her full-time job with IEEE-USA in the 1990s, I have fond memories of seeing her typing articles on high-tech legislation on the office’s only remaining electric typewriter, immersed in the daily papers in our library, and peering in to the conference room to see who was meeting – or if lunch was open to staff!
Edith taught us about how to live long and happy lives – to speak our minds, to have passionate interests, and to stay mentally and physically active. Edith’s cousin wrote that she drank a glass of milk every day and apparently didn’t need to take any medications, including aspirin. According to Anne Waldrop, food was not important to Edith. She “had the appetite of a bird, and a fabulous figure to match.” And her “drink of choice” was “a perfect Manhattan.”
Anne’s collage depicts her cousin in her 20s. Anne introduced her reminiscence about Edith with a story on her as a toddler. Younger relatives conflated Edith’s name as “Etar.” Late for dinner, Edith was finally found on top of a windmill in the backyard! Anne concluded: “I thought to myself – that is Etar – an explorer from day one. If I had to design a hat for her, it would no doubt be some kind of a stylish pith helmet, as she was always an explorer.”
This is the memory I will carry in my heart and mind: Edith Carper, the woman pioneer and fearless explorer.
Pender M. McCarter, APR, Fellow PRSA, retired in 2007 as IEEE-USA director of public relations, and is currently IEEE-USA’s senior public relations counselor.