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Shelbia Lengel, Duke alum and creator of national toll-free AIDS hotline, dies

Shelbia Lengel, Trinity ’57, who established America’s first national AIDS hotline, died Aug. 27 of cancer in Charlottesville, Va.

She not only created the AIDS hotline but also served as a public affairs writer for the a number of government agencies, according to her obituary in the Washington Post.

Born in 1936 in Albany, Ky., Lengel was an ambitious person from an early age. Graduating second in her class from her West Virginian high school, she was accepted to Duke on a full scholarship, where she would major in English. 

Upon graduation, she went on to serve in the Department of Agriculture as a speechwriter before moving into a similar role for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

She later went on to contribute to the creation of many firsts for the nation.

During her time in the Environmental Protection Agency, she helped organize activities for the nation’s first Earth Day in the early 1970s, according to her obituary in the Washington Blade.

She left government work in 1971 to serve as executive director of the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Pennsylvania, but resumed her government career in 1976 by joining the Department of Health and Human Services.

In the 1980s, she spearheaded the creation of the nation’s first AIDS hotline while serving in the Department of Health and Human Services. During a time when false rumors about AIDS were common and its death toll climbed to the thousands, this toll-free hotline helped calm the public panic and inform people about this disease. 

With 13,000 callers on the first day, she created a lasting impact on how the government and the people confront AIDS.

Additionally, she worked with U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, whose opinion of AIDS initially clashed with her own. She was instrumental in changing Koop's views on AIDS—among other methods to the AIDS prevention effort, condoms were distributed to the public.

Lengel was personally affected by this rampant epidemic. Her son, Andy, died in 1994 from AIDS. Shelbia Lengel now rests next to her son in Falls Church, Va., where she is survived by her husband, Alan, and sons, Ed and Eric.

Correction: This article was updated Friday night to reflect that Lengel's son was named Andy. The Chronicle regrets the error.