Doris Aiken's long life of activism and civic engagement drew to a close early Wednesday morning at her Nott Street home in Schenectady. She was 90.
A native of Souderton, Pennsylvania and a graduate of UCLA, Aiken moved to the Schenectady area with her husband William Aiken and their three children in 1972. In 1978 she founded Remove Intoxicated Drivers after a drunk driver killed two Schenectady teenagers, Karen and Timothy Morris. Under Aiken's leadership, RID grew into a national organization and not only changed public policy, but also altered the American landscape and arguably saved thousands of lives.
"When she started RID, there was no other group out there like it," said her son William. "She was someone who was an optimist, and I can't remember when she was ever discouraged or deterred. The death of Karen and Timothy Morris in December of 1977 was what got her to start RID, but she was always engaged in politics and culture."
Aiken was hosting her own issue-oriented TV show on WRGB when she created RID, and had an opportunity to pursue her broadcasting career in Pittsburgh. Instead, she decided to remain in Schenectady and focus on fostering the growth of RID and changing people's minds about the consequences of drunk driving. At the time, people were rarely prosecuted for driving while drunk.
"She had a good shot at getting a job that ended up going to Sally Jesse Raphael, so we were concerned that she was giving up a career in television for RID," William Aiken remembered . "We thought TV was a good fit for her, and RID was something new. It was something of a risk, but she had always been concerned with social issues."
When current Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney first ran for the post and won in 1990, he remembers Aiken telling him that he had his priorities mixed up.
"She thought I was over-emphasizing the drug problem, and was telling me I was going to be the drug DA, not the DWI DA," Carney said Wednesday morning. "But soon after I took office she was very supportive of me, and I did as much as I could to help her. We made a real commitment to her cause by adding a full-time DWI prosecutor instead of part time, and she was grateful that we shared her concerns. Over the years we worked well together, and if she was having some kind of event I would always try to make it. I had a great deal of respect for her. She changed the law and the culture."
Doris Aiken with former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato.
Randy Jennings, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady on Wendall Avenue, where Aiken also attended services, was a family friend and had known Doris all of his life.
"My parents were long-time friends of Bill and Doris', and my dad worked especially close with her when she founded RID," Jennings said. "I'll always think of her as someone who was engaged and active. She was always ready to talk to people, and to take someone on if she had a different opinion. She was a real force in the community. Her cause was to reduce the number of injuries and deaths associated with drunk driving. It was her mission."
Aiken, who lost her husband in 2004, published her autobiography, "My Life as a Pit Bull: Collaring the Drunken Driver," in 2002. The title was a fitting one for Aiken, according to Jennings.
"I always admired and respected the willingness she had to express herself, sometime quite vigorously," he said. "She had a real tenacity for civic duty and for RID, and she wasn't afraid to render her opinion. But she was a great woman who changed the way people think about drunk driving."
By 1983, Aiken had helped create 130 RID chapters in 30 states, and the group currently has 35 chapters in 25 states. She remained active with the group until recently.
"I feel very grateful to have the opportunity to make a difference," Aiken told The Gazette in November of last year. "And I'm proud about the people I got to know. All different kinds of people."
Aiken's activism began soon after she graduated from UCLA with a degree in sociology. She worked for U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan for a time teaching job skills to poor minority women, and before heading to the Capital Region in 1972 had volunteered her time with Save the Children, a charity in Westport, Conn.
William Aiken said his mother's health was fine until late January.
"We took her to the hospital and she never really recovered from the change in environment," he said. "Before that she had kept her enthusiasm about things. She told me recently, and I'll always remember, how what mattered to her most were all the people that she helped."
William Aiken, who took over the day-to-day duties of running the local chapter from his mother a couple of months ago, said his family will hold a memorial service for his mother in the spring at the Unitarian Universalist Society.