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Our beloved Miss Betty celebrates 50 years at Queens

By Vanessa Willis03/09/11 -  

From the Winter 2011 Queens Magazine:

For 154 years young people have flocked to Queens to learn about the world and their place in it. For 49 of those years, "Miss Betty" has played a variety of roles on campus-housemother to homesick young women, special assistant to a president and doyenne of the dining hall. Along the way she's become a student of humanity.

Betty Davis is Queens' longest-serving employee. In 2012, when she celebrates a half century of service, she will have been here for almost a third of the university's history, through four Queens presidents and nine US presidents. She's played a part in the stories of so many; now she tells hers.

August 13, 1962, was Miss Betty's first day of work at Queens. She was 17 years old, just a tad younger than the teenagers arriving as freshmen.

That week, Marilyn Monroe was buried and Russia launched its third cosmonaut into space. John F. Kennedy was President and Beatles records had only just begun to appear
across the pond.

Charlotte was a demure town segregated not only according to race, but also by class. Betty grew up on the west side of town and was about to start her senior year at West Charlotte High School when she decided to leave school to help support her family. She became a housekeeper in the residence halls at Queens, and students quickly noticed the petite young woman with the sunny disposition. She later became a housemother.

"In those days I wasn't much older than them, but they respected me because I respected them," she says. "I checked on my girls every day to make sure they were doing what they
were supposed to be doing. And if there was a problem, I was right on top of it."

Debbie Butler Bryan '68 lived in Morrison Hall during her freshman year at Queens in 1964.

"I'd never been south of Washington, DC, and in 1964 Charlotte was very different," she remembers. "I felt like I was on another planet and was the most homesick freshman. I'd
grown up less than an hour from New York City, so there was a major culture shock. At that time, Charlotte was kind of a backwater." Betty remembers being housemother to Debbie and her floor mates who were all from the North. They just couldn't seem to adjust to life in the South and being so far from their
families.

"I'd be moping around and she always had a smile on her face and would say, 'Miss Debbie, why do you look so sad?'" Bryan remembers. "She always pointed out the positive things
about the Queens experience and had a great sense of humor. When she sort of held our hands and told us it would be okay, we believed her and she was right. We had the most incredible faculty teaching us, and it was a great education."

Bryan graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science. She married immediately afterwards, had three children and moved back North and then all over the country
before settling in Connecticut. A decade later, Debbie and Betty would reunite in a chance meeting. "I just marveled because she hadn't changed at all," Debbie says.
The Miss Betty from her dorm days was still a hallmark of the Queens community, giving hugs and flashing warm smiles as she watched over the dining hall and visited with students,
faculty and staff.


Betty has taken care of four generations of Queens students. She's worked in every building on campus and several that have become private homes and are no longer part of
the university. "I always said the Lord's Prayer when I went into Carol Hall because there were so many rumors it was haunted," she says, laughing before insisting that she's serious.

She takes great pleasure in sharing her knowledge about little known parts of campus, including a vault in the Burwell Hall basement, underground tunnels near the library, and the
holding cell under the Stultz building.

It's possible that she's just teasing about at least one of those, she says with a wink, but it sure helps convince rowdy students to keep their behavior in check.

When Dr. Billy O. Wireman became President in 1978, Betty became his lead helper. For 24 years she was right by his side, helping at his home and in his office.

"He treated me like family and asked what I thought about things," she says. "Only a couple of people knew where the key to his house was hidden, and they were Mrs. Wireman
and me."

She remembers long chats with Dr. Wireman in his office, covering everything from raising children and financial planning to his growth strategies for Queens. He helped her get
the loan for her house in South End by vouching for her at the bank, she says. When Wireman's mother died, she remembers, "He carried me and Miss Lily Weathers [who also worked
at Queens, in the kitchen] to Kentucky with him. It was so beautiful out there. I had never left North Carolina before in my life, so it was a wonderful thing to get to go with him."
"Why would I ever want to work for any other place when Queens has always been so good to me?" she says.

Betty says some of her happiest times at Queens occurred when there was a childcare center on campus.

"It was Mothers' Day Out and I helped with the carpool," she says. During class time she would stop in to visit the children. After the program ended, Miss Betty received a surprise gift. "When it closed they gave me the little [toy] organ they played and I still have it in my house."

In her third decade at Queens, Betty witnessed a dramatic change. In 1988, the college went co-ed.

"When we first had boys at Queens they were so mischievous," she says, giggling. "They would come ask me, 'Miss Betty, what can we do to make today fun?' and I'd think
of a plan and say, 'Let's do it!'.... But I'm not going to reveal all of what we did."

That same year she was given the Honorary Alumna Award at reunion. "I got a new dress and it was quite a special occasion," she says. "I try not to be proud, but it was a proud
day when Dr. Wireman gave me that award."

When Wireman died in 2005, she sat with his family at the memorial service.

Betty married in 1972. "We were mostly happy," she says, adding that they separated in 1991. "We didn't have children, but I have plenty of people who call me 'Mama,' so
I've been a mama anyway."

She adopted her niece's son Maurice Sadler when he was very young, and she raised him as her own.

"Even though she's not my biological mother, my earliest memories of having a mother are of her," he says. "She was a PTO officer at my elementary school and sewed me costumes
for trick-or-treating." Sunday mornings were a special time. He remembers waking up to gospel music and the smell of biscuits and gravy. Sometimes he would accompany her to the
dorms, where she would announce, "Man on the hall." Maurice basked in the attention. "I was like 'oh yeah this is cool, I'm a man!'"

But while he enjoyed visits to campus, Maurice never really considered himself to be college material until Betty adopted him.

"She always stressed the importance of education to everyone in our family, telling us not to leave school like she had," he says. "She'd say, 'You are more than you think you are,' and she and a guidance counselor from my school kind of tag-teamed me," he recalls, laughing.

Betty made sure he had every opportunity to be successful in school, including enrolling him in a special program at Davidson College where he took college-level classes during
high school. When it came time to choose where to go after he graduated from Myers Park High, he chose Queens.

"I was so surprised when he said he wanted to come to Queens because children usually want to be away from their parents when they're getting grown, and I was happy that my
Maurice was staying close," she says.

She remembers trying to play it cool when she would see him on campus. She didn't want to embarrass him, but it was hard to fight the urge to hug him every time he walked by.
After all, she hugged everyone else.

"I did leave him a roll of quarters in his mailbox to wash his clothes every Friday, though," she says. Maurice was elected student body president, the first
African American to hold that position. After graduating from Queens in 1996, he went on to earn masters degrees at Bowling Green University and Cal-State San Bernardino. He's been an elementary school principal for eight years and lives in Ohio.

"All that I have and am I owe to public education and Queens, and I owe all of that to Betty," he says. "She is such a lesson in the impact that one person can have in this world,"
he says, adding, "She gets great satisfaction in helping people, taking pride in what they accomplish.

"People might be surprised by the number of people who rely on her and go to her for advice and wisdom," he says. "When I visit Charlotte, we go anywhere and run into people
she's helped-it's like walking around with a rock star. People stop us so they can thank her for the ways she's touched their lives, and that's an every-single-time thing."

Debbie Bryan came back to Queens 20 years after she graduated, in 1988. "I was having lunch with Billy [Wireman] in his office and had not given a dime to Queens
at that point," she says. "The door opened and in walked Betty with our lunch and she looked at me and said, 'Oh! Debbie  Butler!' and gave me a big hug. It was a seminal moment."
Queens had changed so much since I'd been a student there.  Billy had done wonderful things. It was really great that there was this continuity and that she was still there and remembered me," she recalls.

Bryan later joined the Board of Trustees where she's served for 16 years. Her generous gifts have also provided crucial support for major campus improvements, including
the creation of The Lion's Den. "Betty was really the glue that got me involved in Queens again," she says. "She is such a treasure, and it's just unbelievable how much she's just the same today as she was all those years ago."

Betty credits her good health and high energy to clean living.

"I never drank alcohol or smoked," she says. "It just wasn't my style. I know how to have fun without all that mess."

On weekends she walks to Freedom Park or around South End, and spends time with her large extended family. She's also a master bargain shopper and can't resist a good attic
sale. "Penny pinchin'-woo boy, I'm really good at that," she says. "I'm good with my money-I don't spend, spend, spend. I get what I need. And I don't do the direct deposit system
because I have to see my check in my hands and take it to the bank. I want to see what I've earned."

Betty says she gets a kick out of running into her "children" from Queens around Charlotte. Her banker is an alumna and always asks what's going on back at campus. Betty laughs as
she says, "It takes a long time to tell her all the good news. Good things are really happening here, and I am really liking the new dining hall changes."

Last spring, when Queens changed food service vendors for the first time in decades, Betty was called to a meeting with Dean of Students John Downey and Bill Nichols, vice
president for campus planning and services.

"I was so nervous because I thought it was my time to go to pasture," she says. "But they sat me down and said they wanted me to work here for as long as I would like, and
thanked me for my service."

For now, this is her home. In the summers, when she's off between semesters, it doesn't take long for her to feel restless and miss "her Queens children." She likes having a place
where people depend upon her and she can make them smile. Through all the changes and the challenges that aging brings, she's determined to keep serving Queens.

"A long time ago, Dr. Wireman said, 'Gal, don't ever say no. Say you'll try your best,'" she recalls. "And so far, so good."

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