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York County attorney Jane Alexander, 90, was a pioneer who helped women, poor

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

A pioneering York County attorney and former state representative has died at the age of 90, according to the York County Bar Association.

Jane Alexander was the second woman to be admitted to the York County Bar Association, which happened in 1955, according to a letter to member attorneys from bar association President Anne Zerbe.

Alexander died Wednesday, according to the bar association.

Zerbe noted that Alexander was a well-known legal pioneer who was "instantly recognizable" in her signature hats.

A graduate of the former Dillsburg High School, Alexander graduated from Dickinson School of Law in 1954 and served on the Dillsburg Borough Council from 1955 to 1959, according to records from the Pennsylvania Legislature. She also was a twice-elected state representative and served on the board of the Northern Joint School District, according to state records.

In a York County Bar Association video posted on YouTube in 2012, Alexander and others discussed the importance of providing legal services to those who can't afford them.

Pioneering York County attorney Jane Alexander

"When I started there were only two other attorneys part-time here in Dillsburg," she said. "I learned that there were a lot of people at that time who needed legal help, and they didn't have the money to pay for it."

'People needed help': So, she said, she and the other attorneys decided to take payment in kind.

"My family ate very well with the chickens and the steaks and the eggs and the vegetables I would take (as payment) from people," Alexander said. "We would get paid in food or we would set up a payment plan where they would pay maybe a dollar a week on their bill."

 Alexander's contributions were so important that two organizations named two awards after her.

The York County Bar Association's Jane Alexander Award, created in 2001, is awarded to women who have advanced the legal rights of other women through example, education, activism or through the legal system. Winners don't have to be attorneys.

Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Farmers Union created its own Jane Alexander Award, presented annually to a person, family, organization or project for efforts to preserve and enhance family-farm agriculture and a rural way of life. Alexander, who grew up on her family's Dillsburg-area farm, received the inaugural award.

York attorney Jane Alexander was a pioneer for other professional women and was the first woman in the country to be named her state's deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture.

She persisted: Alexander had to be tenacious and persistent to succeed in the male-dominated society of the 1950s and 1960s.

When she was trying to get into Dickinson School of Law, she needed the permission of a specific professor to attend, according to York County Bar Association CEO Victoria Connor.

Despite her repeated attempts, the professor wouldn't communicate with Alexander. But she kept at it and, close to the admittance deadline, he relented and begrudgingly signed the form Alexander needed, Connor said.

"She told that story with great pride and exasperation," Connor said.

Alexander was elected as a Democrat to the state House of Representatives in 1964 and again in 1966, then was appointed to the state's Children's Services Advisory Board from 1969 to 1972, according to state records.

U.S. judge reacts: U.S. Senior District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo said she was sorry to hear of the death of a colleague and good friend.

"She was a trailblazer," Rambo told The York Dispatch. "I have admired her over the years."

The federal judge said she and Alexander met each other professionally. Both had busy careers but always found a way to keep in touch.

Alexander was a winner of the Honorable Sylvia H. Rambo Award from Dickinson School of Law's Women's Law Caucus, according to the judge. It honors women in the legal profession with distinguished careers and who have made the success of other women more likely.

Rambo noted that for some reason, sitting judges didn't ask Alexander to remove her trademark hats during court.

"She was a great lady," Rambo said, adding that both of them tried to be mentors for women.

First in the nation: Alexander served as deputy secretary of the state Department of Agriculture from 1972 until 1978, according to state records. That made her the first woman in the country to hold that state position, according to Zerbe.

Alexander told colleagues that when she attended her first Department of Agriculture meeting after being named deputy secretary, a man there told her, "Missy, the secretaries don't belong here," according to Connor.

"She ignored him, and he was quite embarrassed when she was officially introduced," Connor said.

Because of the systemic gender discrimination Alexander faced at the time, her father advised her to wear hats because, he said, women who wear hats aren't mistaken for secretaries.

York attorney Jane Alexander was twice elected state representative and was deputy secretary of the state Department of Agriculture.

Role model: Alexander practiced law in York County for 65 years, also practiced in Alaska and served as a role model for many women, Zerbe said.

In 2017, LancasterFarming.com ran an article about Alexander that talked about her extensive worldwide travel, including to Ethiopia, Thailand and Europe.

"In the process she had made the acquaintance of notables such as Queen Elizabeth II, the king of Thailand, Prince Ranier of Monaco, Margaret Thatcher, Pierre Trudeau, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Jimmy Carter ... among others," the article states.

"Jane downplayed the challenges and the accomplishments of being the first woman to undertake many of her endeavors," Zerbe wrote in her letter, noting that Alexander broke the glass ceiling before that term was coined.

Instead, Alexander focused on "the ultimate importance of women supporting, mentoring, and networking with each other," according to Zerbe.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

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