Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Helen Avalynne Gibson Tawes (1898-1989)
MSA SC 3520-2292
First Lady of Maryland, 1959-1967

Helen Avalynne Gibson, daughter of Minerva Amerinth and Oliver P. Gibson, was born in Crisfield, Maryland on October 9, 1898. The last of nine children, she became known as "Lou" to her closest companions and as "Miss Avalynne" to many other admirers.  As a young girl, Helen studied piano and voice at the Peabody Institute. Although she lived the majority of her life in Crisfield, her years as a student at the Peabody were spent with her family in Mt. Washington, Baltimore.  During her education, she was asked to showcase her musical talents by performing live on a Salisbury radio program.2  Helen continued her interest in music throughout her life, and was often found at her electric organ when the first family was entertaining at Government House during the Tawes administration. She also was a longstanding member the choir of Crisfield's Asbury Methodist Church.3  In addition to her personal artistic endeavors, Mrs. Tawes was also an active patron of local cultural programs.  She was a member of the Baltimore Opera Guild as well as the Women's Symphony Organization, the Baltimore Music Club, and the Women's Organization of the Salvation Army.When she was in Baltimore she enjoyed atttending the concerts of the Baltimore Symphony, and invited friends from Annapolis and Baltimore to share the Governor's box with her.5

At the age of sixteen, Helen met J. Millard Tawes on a hayride. He was the twenty-year-old son of Alice Byrd and James B. Tawes of Crisfield. The two were married about a year later on Christmas Day, 1915, in a secret ceremony at a Methodist Church in Fruitland; they eloped because they believed that their parents would not approve of her marrying at the young age of seventeen.  The two lived apart at their parents' homes for two weeks before Helen's older sister Oneida discovered the marriage license in a drawer and told everyone about it.  Years later, Helen described the elopement as "the most romantic thing I ever did in my life."6 Millard and Helen had two children, daughter Jimmie Lee and son Philip Wesley.7 The family lived in Crisfield in a house that Millard built right next door to his parent's home. The Tawes lived in this home for their entire married lives, except for the years spent in Annapolis during Governor Tawes' administration.8

Millard Tawes' political career began in the 1930s when he was elected Clerk of the Somerset County Circuit Court.  He later became State Comptroller as well as a State Banking Commissioner.  He won the governorship of Maryland in 1958, an office which he held for eight years.  Mrs. Tawes had been an enthusiastic participant in Millard's campaign for governor, handing out a pamphlet of her favorite Maryland recipes along with the campaign literature.   Later expanded into a best-selling cookbook entitled My Favorite Maryland Recipes, the recipe collection revealed her family secrets for preparing traditional Maryland delicacies such as blue crabs, terrapin, and oysters. In addition to the recipes, she also shared her personal cooking philosophies which included using simple seasonings in order to prevent overpowering the true taste of the dish and always shucking your own oysters to make sure the shell is removed properly.9

Mrs. Tawes' recipes became famous outside the boundaries of the state after being served in the Maryland Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. Among the dishes offered was her fast food version of a crab cake, called a "crab-burger." Her cooking abilities apparently became world renowned, since she personally took over Government House's kitchen in order to cook a special crock of terrapin soup to send to Sir Winston Churchill in London for which England's former Prime Minister sent a grateful letter of appreciation.10 Mrs. Tawes' efforts to popularize Maryland cuisine culminated in 1964 when the House of Delegates drafted a resolution to recognize her success and to commend her for promoting Maryland as "the land of fine food."11

In addition to her culinary pursuits, Mrs. Tawes also worked to make a positive difference in public affairs. She worked with former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson on the Head Start program.12  She joined with the Maryland Federation of Women's Clubs to educate the public on civil defense home preparedness, receiving the club's Home Preparedness Award for her efforts to use Government House as a model for safe homes across the state.13  She secured the approval of the legislature to hang portraits of former first ladies in Government House, and began the publication of a pamphlet on the history of the House.14

Tawes also shared her husband's avid interest in environmental conservation. During his administration, Governor Tawes not only made Assateague Island a national park, but also doubled the area of land covered by the state parks system.15 Reflecting Mrs. Tawes interest in educating the public about the rich diversity of Maryland, in 1975 she broke ground on a six-acre garden, named in her honor, at the Tawes State Office Building in Annapolis. This garden was designed cooperatively by the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of General Services, to showcase the harmony inherent in the various state landscapes including the mountains of the West and the beaches of the Eastern Shore.16

Perhaps Mrs. Tawes is most noteworthy, especially in the context of this study, because of her own personal interest in Maryland's First Ladies. In an interview with the local press, Mrs. Tawes remarked that "a governor's wife comes here and she works like a dog.  I just feel that they get so little credit, some recognition would be nice."17 To remedy what she felt was a glaring omission in the state's history, during her tenure at Government House, she commissioned official portraits of the last five women to occupy the post. In addition to the portrait of herself, Mrs. Tawes hired Baltimore artist Stanislav Rembski to paint Honolulu McKeldin, Dorothy Lane, Eugenia O'Conor, and the late Edna Viola Amos Nice Zinn. The Maryland General Assembly granted Mrs. Tawes ten thousand dollars from the state's general emergency fund to complete the paintings.18 With these portraits, Mrs. Tawes not only succeeded in preserving the images of five First Ladies, but she also elevated their position as a whole. Due to her efforts, it is now customary for the First Lady or Official Hostess to have an official portrait made, just like the governor. Inspired by Mrs. Tawes' sentiments, current First Lady Frances Hughes Glendening, with the assistance of the Maryland State Archives, created an exhibit of the thirteen First Ladies' portraits from the state's collection. These portraits now adorn the walls of Government House, and the Archives is seeking out other paintings to complete the collection.19

After their tenure in Annapolis, the Tawes family moved back to their Crisfield home. Both Mr. and Mrs. Tawes remained active and visible members of their community. Mr. Tawes continued serving in the state government in the Department of Natural Resources and after his retirement continued to work two or three days a week in an office in Crisfield.20 After his death in 1979, Mrs. Tawes remained a widow and continued to live in their Crisfield home until her death at the age of ninety on July 17, 1989.21

Notes on sources

Return to Mrs. Tawes' biographical profile

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