August 27, 2017

I only knew Betty Jolly for a brief seven months, but the impression she left on me will last my lifetime. Her intellect, persistence and wit were inspiring and she was a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, she passed away recently and I feel a big hole where she once was.

We met this past January when Betty asked me to participate in a book project about remarkable women leaders of Virginia. The book’s working title was DameChangers.

To me, Betty personified what she referred to as a “DameChanger” – a woman who, with strong values and persistence, did the right thing, and made a major change in their field without ego or fanfare. (Women like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan of the Hidden Figures story, and Judy Ford Wason of the Wason Center for Public Policy would have topped this list.)

During our brief time as friends, I was captivated by her own story. Betty grew up in rural Tennessee and Kentucky, where her father taught her the importance of bucking the status quo and refuting intolerance by simply doing the right thing.

In her career, Betty served as government liaison director for three Virginia universities and was an appointee in the administrations of two governors. With her personal time, she was an avid reader and writer and political activist, and she served on several boards including the Board of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS), the Board of Visitors of James Madison University and the Garden Club of Virginia. She was known as a trusted mentor to many.

Betty was often the only woman in the room. She once told me that she felt many board members and other appointees would simply wax philosophical about ideas and actions that their history indicated they’d never deliver on. At one point, she was so fed up with the grandiose talk and lack of action, she said to the group, “We have about as much chance of accomplishing that as we have of pissing in a swinging bucket.”

Part of what I cherished in Betty, along with her brilliance, was her salty good humor. She was southern to the core – shaking her head, smiling, and quipping “Bless his heart,” when someone was behaving badly, as if they couldn’t help themselves. Perhaps my favorite quote of hers was when someone was on the verge of his own disaster – being fired or removed from authority – she would say, “He’s circling the drain.” The visual is perfect!

Although Betty was not a Virginian by birth or upbringing, she will remain a Virginia “DameChanger” in my book.