Virginia Knauer, 96, hot-dog watchdog

Posted: October 18, 2011

DO YOU KNOW what's in that hot dog you're about to pop into your mouth?

Virginia Knauer did, and through her efforts in a lifetime of work in consumer protection, she made that hot dog - and a lot of other products - much healthier for you.

It wasn't always easy. President Richard Nixon had to go to bat for her when she rankled the hot-dog industry, and a few others, with her insistence on a lower fat percentage in the all-American staple.

She was Nixon's special assistant for consumer affairs, and when she angered the hot-dog manufacturers, and even ran up against the Department of Agriculture, Nixon stood by her.

"Stick to your guns, Virginia," he said. "I'm behind you 100 percent."

Virginia Harrington Knauer, who was director of the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs under presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and a two-term at-large Philadelphia City Council member in the '60s, died Sunday. She was 96 and lived in Washington, D.C.

When Virginia was sworn in as director of the Office of Consumer Affairs in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House on April 19, 1969, she became the highest-ranking woman in the executive branch.

Within months of her appointment, she shocked the nation by exposing what was in hot dogs. This was before product labeling, and her revelations received wide media coverage.

The Washington Post ran a story with the headline "Major Administration Shift on Weenie and Renewed Push for Produce Labeling."

Virginia went to Washington after serving as director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Affairs, the first woman in the nation to head a state consumer agency.

In 1970, Nixon appointed her to head the U.S. delegation to the newly created Committee on Consumer Policy of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. She traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia to promote the American approach to consumerism.

Virginia was a strong advocate for programs to educate and empower the consumer. She created the Consumer Information Center in Pueblo, Colo., which disseminated 20 million consumer-oriented publications a year. She also started programs to teach consumer subjects in schools.

One of her deputies in the consumer office was Elizabeth Hanford, whom she introduced in 1972 to a Republican senator named Robert Dole. They eventually married, and Elizabeth Dole became secretary of Labor under President George H.W. Bush and a U.S. senator from North Carolina.

Virginia left the White House in 1977 at the end of the Ford administration and started her own consumer-consulting firm. However, she returned to her former consumer job in the administration under President Ronald Reagan and remained until 1989, when she joined a consulting firm and supported no-fault insurance as the national chairwoman of Project New Start.

Virginia grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Girls High in 1933. She then entered a dual-degree program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the University of Pennsylvania, and received degrees from both in 1937.

She continued her studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti, in Florence, until the outbreak of World War II.

After returning to the States, she met and married Wilhelm F. Knauer, a lawyer and deputy Pennsylvania attorney general.

A staunch Republican, Virginia became interested in politics in the 1950s. She organized women's groups to support the presidential campaign of Dwight Eisenhower.

In 1960, she became the first Republican woman elected to an at-large Council seat in the city. She was re-elected in 1964.

In 1961, she and her husband founded the Knauer Foundation for Historical Preservation. It restored and maintained the 18th- century tavern Man Full of Trouble as a museum of Colonial decorative arts in Society Hill. They saved it from its previous incarnation as a chicken coop.

She lectured widely on historic preservation and antiques.

At one time, Virginia bred and raised Doberman pinschers, and was past president of the Doberman Pinscher Club of America. Her most notable dog was Ch. Emperor of Marienland, ranked as one of the "seven great sires" of the American Doberman. The "Ch." signified champion.

Virginia received many honors, including the coveted Gimbel Philadelphia Award for outstanding service to humanity.

She is survived by a daughter, Valerie Knauer Burden, and three grandchildren. Besides her husband, she was predeceased by a son, Common Pleas Judge Wilhelm F. Knauer Jr.

Services: A memorial service will be held in December. Contributions in her name may be made to the University of Pennsylvania Class of 1937.

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