Our Founders: Eleanor S. Weiant
Eleanor S. Weiant didn’t spend a lot of time worrying that something had never been done before.
She was too busy pursuing her passions to dwell on the fact that she was a pioneer.
Her activism for people with developmental disabilities resonated around the state of Ohio. And her legacy is still celebrated today.
Not only did she lay the groundwork for the foundation of the Licking County Board of Developmental Disabilities (LCBDD) but she helped open one of the first schools in the state to serve children with disabilities.
She served on the committee that created Ohio’s system of county boards of developmental disabilities and successfully lobbied state legislators, making Ohio the first state in the country to independently fund services.
In a 1967 article — written by The Newark Advocate to recognize the dedication of the new Eleanor S. Weiant Starlight School — Eleanor was referred to as, “a legend in her own time.”
A Licking County legend
Eleanor Smith Weiant lived a life filled with accomplishments and milestones.
Growing up, she and her twin sister Ruth Smith Miller were the first Girl Scouts in Ohio to earn first class ranks.
Both accomplished swimmers who were known as “Ohio’s greatest mermaids,” Eleanor and Ruth competed nationally and set world records in the swimming pool.
They were the first women to swim and compete nationally with Ohio State University’s men’s swim team in the early 1920s.
Eleanor met her husband, Warren S. Weiant Jr., at a swimming competition. After they married, they moved to Licking County, where Warren worked at his family’s business, W.S. Weiant and Sons Greenhouses.
Eleanor had three children, Warren III, Edmund and Sally.
She organized the Licking County Girl Scout Council — introducing Girl Scouting to Licking County, organized the first Red Cross learn-to-swim and life saving classes in the area and was a charter member of the Licking County Symphony.
She and Warren had a collection of antique cars and their hobby took them all over the world.
Despite all these achievements, Eleanor was proudest of her advocacy on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, said her grandson Chip Weiant.
“For her, it was her life’s work. It was more important than the world records, more important than her Ohio State experience,” he said. “A lot of her identity came from being a freedom fighter and someone who loved to step up and serve others. (Her DD involvement) was the expression of her life’s work in the community.”
‘Her life’s work’
A member of the Licking County chapter of the American Association of University Women, Eleanor connected with a group of parents who were trying to start a school for their children with disabilities.
The group was in need of a leader and Eleanor decided to step up.
Eleanor had a close friend in California who had a child with disabilities. She understood the importance of the cause, Chip said.
“She felt (the parents) were overwhelmed and under served and there was a community-based solution that needed to be activated,” Chip said. “She was very empathetic to those unmet needs. She was a solution finder.”
In 1952, Weiant became president of the newly formed Licking County Council for Retarded Children. She worked to raise money and generate support to start the Starlight School program, which the Advocate describes as the first public school for developmentally disabled children in Ohio.
After years of being housed in churches and school buildings, the school found a permanent home in a new building on North 22nd Street. When it was dedicated in 1967 as the Eleanor S. Weiant Starlight School, it was the first time a local school had been named for a living county resident.
Now called the E.S. Weiant Center, the building houses the administrative offices of the Licking County Board of DD.
Advocating for statewide change
Weiant’s activism on the state level began in 1953 when she was elected to the Ohio Association for Retarded Children. From there, she was appointed by Governor James Rhodes to a committee tasked with making recommendations to the state legislature about DD issues.
Her work on that committee helped lay the foundation for the current DD system.
Eleanor traveled around the state, learning more about the needs of people with disabilities and their families. She registered as a lobbyist and spent seven years fighting for a bill to allow county boards to put levies on the ballot and receive tax funding, according to a 2002 Advocate article.
The opportunity to independently fund education and other services set the state of Ohio apart. Within the next decade, other states followed suit, pushing the DD field forward, according to the Advocate.
‘On the basis of love’
Throughout her life, Eleanor worked to promote empathy and understanding for people with disabilities.
As she told the Advocate in 1967, her goal was to see people with disabilities benefit from “the kind of love that families can offer — ‘all the things they can’t get in a big institution.'”
Her vision for county boards was that they would help provide, “care, education and training in the community from birth to death, on the basis of love.”
As early as 1960, she was speaking at state conventions in Columbus, advocating for inclusion.
“The school of thought in Licking County continues to be that we have something that the normal child should be aware of — and the handicapped child must learn to become a part of the community — including the school — instead of being isolated,” she said during an Ohio Association of Retarded Children panel.
Eleanor received the International Sertoma Service to Mankind Award for her efforts in 1968, which she proudly displayed on her wall.
“It was a proud piece of her identity and symbolized the work that went statewide and served many others,” Chip said.
When Eleanor died on Nov. 13, 1985, at age 82, the entire Licking County Board of Developmental Disabilities closed for a day in her honor.
A year later, she was posthumously inducted into the Licking County Hall of Fame.
Cheryl Phipps, who was then superintendent of the Board, spoke to the Advocate about the significance of the loss.
“It feels as if a member of your family has passed away,” she said.