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As Long as We Remember...

September 27, 2005

Memories and Peacemaking

Norman M. Covert

Mrs. Helen G. Alexander is among the interesting and ubiquitous men and women who have questioned the efficacy of Fort Detrick and its biomedical research and development mission over the years. She and her political allies refuse to be convinced of the rightness and necessity of this arm of the National Defense.

Her days of dissent apparently ended on a quiet note three weeks ago when she died. Mrs. Alexander was also a loving wife and mother, but we knew her only in the public forum.

For wont of a better description, she was certainly an opponent, or a “fan,” (to gratify this ego). She was more correctly our “checks and balances” advocate, from her viewpoint. This lady was never found “out of character” and was as tenacious as any foe in the 23 years of this writer’s attempts to explain the positives and negatives of Fort Detrick.

Curiously, the death of Mrs. Alexander, who resided on Reels Mills Road, resulted in but four lines of copy at the top of The Frederick News-Post’s listing of “Deaths.” The cryptic notice reported simply that she had died on Wednesday, September 7, 2005.

Usually a full obituary appears within a couple days, but her survivors apparently included only an adult son, whom she had loved and continued to protect and support. Her husband, John, died within the past year, we are told.

The lack of specificity in this commentary is based on a lack of personal involvement with Mrs. Alexander. We didn’t travel in the same circles. This writer ultimately was bold enough to refer to her as “Helen” at the public sessions in which she continually asked questions about Fort Detrick. She regularly claimed that Fort Detrick played a seminal role in the creation of the HIV virus that brought the horror of Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

[For the record, the former Soviet Union’s KGB originated the notion that AIDS was the result of ”a cruel experiment gone awry” at Fort Detrick’s “Germ Warfare Laboratory.” Former Soviet Premier Gorbachev apologized to President Ronald Reagan in 1988 for the disinformation effort. Helen, though, didn’t believe Gorbachev.]

Helen was like the gritty, irascible journalist Helen Thomas, who still appears at White House Press briefings and asks outlandish and often unanswerable questions. How could we not let Helen ask the first question after a presentation at C. Burr Artz Library, or at the Historical Society of Frederick County’s sessions in the Winchester Hall Meeting Room?

Helen’s questions were always the same subject matter, but couched in varying disguises. She managed to ask about every controversy – real and imagined in the world and national press – and was sharp with multiple follow-ups. Answers had to be to the point and based on accurate recountings of factual material.

Helen was clever, smart, and tenacious. One of her claims to fame was being one of the top vote getters among candidates for the Democratic State Central Committee several years ago, a job which she took seriously. She also was a frequent writer of letters to the editor.

But Helen never got personal when she was in the audience. It was always the “Corporate Fort Detrick,” the face of Fort Detrick which she challenged. When the U.S. Army post’s public environmental matters committee met, she was in attendance, ready to make the Army accountable for any misdeed.

We didn’t actually meet the last time we were in the same room. It was a temporary holding area at Frederick Memorial Hospital for patients awaiting room assignments in the middle of the reconstruction project. Helen was rolled in on an emergency room gurney and placed in the next curtained area.

We had no opportunity to speak because each of us had our spouses nearby as nurses and technicians ensured our life support systems were working.

Helen played a small role in my professional life, but still I was moved by the brief death notice. Her friend, Malgo Schmidt, was unaware that Helen had died the day she knocked on her door, intending to share a book and a bag full of home-grown string beans.

No one answered Ms. Schmidt’s knock, or subsequent phone calls. No obituary has appeared in the newspaper and it may be that the Orphan’s Court will ultimately take care of Helen’s estate.

Mrs. Helen G. Alexander cared about her family, friends and community and we trust that God has welcomed her home.

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