As comfortable in the role of Miss Claire on the Romper Room children's television show as she was mingling with presidents as the wife of U.S. Sen. Richard S. Schweiker of Pennsylvania, Claire Coleman Schweiker gracefully embraced the dual roles of broadcast pioneer for women and traditional Washington hostess.
Mrs. Schweiker, 81, died Sunday, April 28, in McLean, Va., of respiratory complications after she was hospitalized for a broken arm.
The daughter of John C. and Claire Binder Coleman, Mrs. Schweiker grew up in Glenside and was valedictorian of Springfield High School in Montgomery County. She was a Temple University homecoming queen - once named "Sweetest Coed" in a citywide contest - who majored in radio and television broadcasting, said her daughter, Lani Schweiker Shelton.
Her goal was to have a children's program, Shelton said. When a professor told her that broadcasting was "a man's world," the young woman set out to prove him wrong.
In 1954, at the age of 22, Mrs. Schweiker was hired to host the local broadcast of Romper Room on WFIL-TV (now 6ABC) and became "Miss Claire." She shared an office with Dick Clark during his Bandstand show, precursor to American Bandstand.
Aimed at preschoolers, Romper Room ran from 1953 to 1994 in various U.S. cities with local hosts.
Appearing with a small group of children on live television, Mrs. Schweiker had to be ready for anything to happen.
Once, a snake that a zoo worker brought onto the show wriggled down Mrs. Schweiker's dress on the air. She handled it with the same poise she demonstrated when a doctor X-rayed her chest on the air, Shelton said.
"Mom was relieved there aren't tapes of the show," she added.
Gerry Wilkinson, a local TV producer and chairman of the board of Broadcast Pioneers, which honors local talent, said, "Children spot a fake better than anyone. She just came across as a real person. "
Not long after, Mrs. Schweiker, who was also a Sunday school teacher, was the subject of an Inquirer story by Edgar Williams.
That article, according to her family, sparked her romance with her future husband.
Sitting at home reading the piece, Richard Schweiker's mother shook the paper and said, "This is the kind of girl you should marry."
At first he resisted, but, because he knew Williams, Schweiker spoke with the writer about the fetching TV host, and the two began courting. They were engaged within six weeks.
After two years on Romper Room, Mrs. Schweiker decided she wanted to be a homemaker, Shelton said. Although she was one of the few women on television, she felt that being a wife and mother was more important to her. The couple would have five children and 23 grandchildren.
Mrs. Schweiker took on the new role of "consummate politician's wife," Shelton said. She was gracious, with a gift for remembering important details about people, invaluable to a young Republican congressman on the rise.
President Ronald Reagan named Sen. Schweiker secretary of health and human services in 1981 at the end of his second Senate term, culminating a political career that began as a U.S. representative from Pennsylvania in 1961.
Mrs. Schweiker was a hit in Washington, where the couple befriended the Reagans, the Bidens, and several first ladies.
But she remained down to earth, her daughter said, enjoying summers in Ocean City, N.J., where the family has a house. Mrs. Schweiker was deeply involved in her church, St. Paul's Lutheran in Washington, serving as the first woman to be president of the church council. She frequently gave speeches on matters of health and faith, and served on the board of the Medical College of Pennsylvania for more than 30 years.
In addition to her husband, daughter, and grandchildren, she is survived by daughters Kristi Schweiker Carey and Kyle Schweiker Hard; sons Malcolm Schweiker and Richard Schweiker Jr.; and a sister.
Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Friday, May 24, at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, 4900 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington. A service and interment will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at Central Schwenkfelder Church and Garden of Memories, 2111 Valley Forge Rd., Worcester Township, Montgomery County.