Public servant bows out

Fighter: Her persistence and attention to detail have made Betty Ann Krahnke an admired Montgomery County Council member. Now, with Lou Gehrig's disease dogging her steps, she resigns her office.

January 12, 2000|By Patricia Meisol and Candus Thomson | Patricia Meisol and Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- She didn't want to quit yet, but in the end Betty Ann Krahnke decided it was cheaper and more democratic to give up the elected office entrusted to her nine years ago.

Although diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in the summer of 1998, the Montgomery County Council member had insisted on continuing a career that began with neighborhood stop signs and progressed to statewide improvements in public safety. By staying in the public eye, she made living with the disease -- also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS -- her latest crusade.

But neither she nor her doctors knew how quickly the ALS, a fatal neuro-muscular disease, would progress. She lost her voice first, then the ability to walk. Just last week, a feeding tube was inserted.

"Shortly after Christmas, with guidance from my family, I decided my illness had progressed to the point where, in a few months, carrying out my duties will become extremely difficult," Krahnke said yesterday in the council chamber where she fought for victims of domestic abuse and against urban sprawl.

Using the voice synthesizer that has been her constant companion, Krahnke, 57, announced to teary-eyed friends and neighbors that she would be stepping down on April 17.

The timing, she told the overflow crowd of almost 100, saves the county money by piggybacking the primary election to fill her seat on the March 7 presidential primary. And it was Krahnke who insisted upon a law that shifted filling a vacancy from the council to the voters.

The decision to step down was vintage Krahnke: practical and with the public's best interests at heart. But it may have been the toughest of her career; for Betty Ann Krahnke, politics was not a job but her life.

She came to office at a time when women of her talents who became involved in public life were derisively referred to as "over-educated housewives." It was a term she despised but used to her advantage, taking her opponents by storm with her eye for detail.

A stay-at-home mom, she had not only the interest, but also the luxury of time to critically examine the fabric of life, first in her neighborhood, then in the world beyond. She and her generation worked to improve the quality of life: schools, roads and now, access to the computer age. Others before her, described by Helen Hooven Santmeyer in her book, "... And Ladies of the Club," set up the libraries and schools that became the nation's cultural infrastructure.

A Republican in a Democratic stronghold, Krahnke's tireless lobbying for her constituents was often successful because she overwhelmed the opposition with details she had mastered.

She was elected to the council in 1990, the same year as Nancy Dacek and Marilyn Praisner. The three women sweated the details, tolerated no shortcuts and insisted that government follow to the letter its own rules.

Krahnke became known for soliloquies that made the men on the council roll their eyes and sigh in frustration. But as her voice began to falter, Krahnke changed her style, favoring brevity. People listened to her more.

The switch to the synthesizer forced Krahnke to whittle her words further as she pecked away at the keyboard.

"Change is hard, but she hasn't lost a beat. It just takes a little longer," said Praisner.

For example, three hours to get dressed in the morning and an hour to be fed.

Still, she continued to work, to ask questions, to push for progress. Just recently, after reports of brutality at juvenile boot camps came to light, Krahnke sought assurance from county officials that boys at the Noyes Children's Center in Rockville were safe.

"Public service was fuel to keep her going," said Praisner. "For Betty Ann, this is a vitamin."

At lunch in her office the week before Christmas, Krahnke spent the hour practicing on a newer, high-speed version of her voice machine, intermittently adding to the conversation with jokes, news about her family and the latest on her medical condition. "Stem cell transplants are the most promising treatment for ALS," she said on her computer. "My doctor's eyes light up whenever he talks about them."

Much of her reading now is done at home, with the help of her husband, Wilson, their three grown daughters and more than 100 volunteers. It was Wilson Krahnke who started the discussion about when to resign, he said yesterday.

She wanted to keep going, but finally gave in to reason, with one caveat: that she shepherd her district's projects through the budget process.

So for the next three months, Krahnke will remain in her familiar role as the master of the details.

Says Wilson Krahnke: "We can't turn the pages fast enough to keep up with her."

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