The wife of the late Vermont senator George Aiken has died. Lola Aiken was 102.
Lola Aiken filled an unusual role as a senate spouse. For many years, she ran her husband’s Washington office, and she was deeply involved in his career in the U.S. Senate and the preservation of his legacy.
If Lola – and that’s what everyone called her; simply "Lola" – had a motto, it might be this declaration from a 2002 VPR interview:
“I like to keep that brain of mine moving!”
She was 90 at the time.
Aiken’s mind was active in her youth. She was valedictorian of the Montpelier High School class of 1930.
And her mind stayed active well into her 90s. She was a familiar figure at campaign events for Republican candidates she favored: The diminutive woman with the big glasses, broad smile and countless stories about her days in Washington.
Stephen Terry coauthored the book The Essential Aiken and worked in the late senator’s Washington, D.C. office, which Lola Aiken ran for years before she married George Aiken in 1967.
“Lola was a very well-known Capitol Hill person,” he said.
Lola and George Aiken’s marriage followed the death of Sen. Aiken’s first wife, Beatrice who stayed in Vermont and never traveled to Washington.
Stephen Terry says long before Beatrice Aiken’s death, Lola and George had become close.
Their closeness was “discreet, yet known,” he said. “But it was never spoken about.”
Terry says Lola Aiken’s remarkable memory for names and biographical details was an invaluable help to the senator.
“She was the reason that he stayed another term,” he said. “She also helped him navigate as he was older in Washington. She was his memory.”
Lola Aiken was born Lalla Pierotti in Montpelier. Her parents were Italian immigrants.
Aiken said their interest in politics rubbed off. As a young woman, she took a job in state government.
“Every chance I got,” she said, “I would sneak up when the legislature was in session.”
She volunteered in George Aiken’s 1940 campaign for U.S. Senate, but the two never met. Shortly after his election, she was hired as a member of the senator’s staff and she moved to Washington. At first, she found that her demonstrative Italian temperament clashed with Aiken’s Yankee taciturnity.
“The first year I didn’t like him very well,” she said later, “because, typical Vermonter, I’d go in to tell him something and he looked like he wasn’t paying attention, and what really made me mad was he heard everything I said.”
Over time, Lola took on more responsibility and eventually the title of administrative assistant.
Once the two were married, Aiken took his wife off the payroll.
As her husband’s right hand person, Lola Aiken met Washington’s most powerful men. She counted high-ranking senators as close friends and got to know the individual behind the public image.
“There is always another side,” she said of Washington’s major players. “I liked Nixon. Somebody said to me, ‘I don’t understand that.’ He was a much different person when you knew him.”
After the senator’s retirement, the couple helped establish the Aiken Lecture Series at the University of Vermont, which Lola continued to guide after Aiken’s death in 1984.
She also devoted herself to maintaining George Aiken’s legacy. She spoke frequently about his accomplishments and senate career, always referring to her late husband "the governor" – the title he preferred from his two terms as Vermont’s chief executive.
Jimmy Johnston of Montpelier was a long-time friend of the Aikens. He says Lola stayed true to the Republican Party but picked and chose who she would support.
“I don’t believe I ever saw her at the Republican dinner,” he said. “But she used to get involved personally with different candidates.”
In her 2002 interview with VPR, Lola said she wasn’t sure if she influenced any of George Aiken’s views – but she didn’t hesitate to speak her mind to him. She recalled one time when the senator asked his staff what they thought of a speech he’d written.
“And they all told him it was wonderful and I sat there and said nothing,” she said. “And when they left he looked at me and he said, ‘You didn’t think it was so great?’ And I said, ‘let’s put it this way: I think you can do better.’ And he said, ‘If you’re so damn smart, why aren’t you the United States senator?’ And I said, ‘that’s why I’m so smart; I’m not the United States senator.’ Yes, I disagreed with him. One time one of the reporters said, ‘Well, Lola, I guess you agree with the governor on everything.’ I said, ‘No, I’ve got a brain of my own.’”
In addition to her role in George Aiken’s career, Lola leaves a legacy of her own. Long after the death of her famous husband, she remained active in civic affairs, volunteering her time and considerable energy to a long list of educational and charitable organizations.
Lola Aiken was always coy about her age. She was once quoted as saying, “Anybody who will tell their age will tell anything.”