Shelbia “Shellie” Lengel, who served as a public affairs spokesperson and writer, including speechwriter, for several U.S. government agencies in Washington beginning in the late 1950s and played a lead role in organizing the government’s first national AIDS hotline in the early 1980s, died Aug. 27 of cancer at her home in Charlottesville, Va. She was 81.
A native of West Virginia, Lengel graduated second in her high school class in Charleston, W.Va., and was accepted at Duke University in North Carolina on a full scholarship, according to her son, Eric Lengel. Eric Lengel said his mother graduated from Duke in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in English.
He said his mother began her professional career in the federal government in 1958 at the Department of Agriculture as a public information writer and speechwriter.
She continued her role as a writer and speech writer in subsequent years at the then Department of Health, Education, and Welfare from 1962 to 1968; and at the Environmental Protection Agency from 1969 to 1971. While at EPA she helped organize the agency’s first Earth Day activities, Eric Lengel said.
He said she took a hiatus from government service from 1971 to 1976 when she served as executive director of the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Pennsylvania at the organization’s office in Reading, Pa.
She resumed her career in the federal government in 1976, her son said, when she became a public affairs spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, where she remained until her retirement in 1988.
Eric Lengel said his mother became actively involved in HHS’s efforts to address the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, among other things, by playing a key role in getting the agency’s AIDS hotline up and running.
He said she also worked on AIDS related projects with then U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Everett Koop at a time when AIDS was little understood. President Ronald Reagan appointed Koop, who was known then as a conservative fundamentalist Christian who was strongly opposed for the Surgeon General’s position by LGBT and AIDS activists.
But in the midst of Shellie Lengel’s role as a spokesperson for HHS, Koop riled his once conservative supporters and pleased many AIDS activists by calling for widespread distribution of condoms, including in schools, as part of the nation’s AIDS prevention effort.
Eric Lengel said his mother became involved as a volunteer for AIDS causes upon her retirement in 1988. Among other things, she worked as a volunteer for D.C.’s Food and Friends, the first large-scale organization in the D.C. area that delivered meals for homebound people with HIV/AIDS.
Her longtime support for the LGBT community and its struggle with AIDS hit home in a profound way in 1994, Eric Lengel said, when his brother, one of her three sons, Andy Lengel, who was gay, died of AIDS.
Shellie Lengel is survived by her husband, Alan Lengel; her sons Eric and Ed Lengel; and grandchildren Megan Lengel, Stephen Lengel, Mike Lengel, Thomas Lengel, and Laura Lengel.
She was scheduled to be buried at the National Memorial Park in Falls Church, Va., next to her son Andy in an upcoming private ceremony.