Alumnus honors late wife with unique endowment
Betsy and Jim Forney
A love story is being told on campus through a new series of murals. But the story is not found in the subject of the art; the story is the art.
Consider a sampling of romance narratives – Odysseus and Penelope, Jacob and Rachel, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The story of Betsy and Jim has touches of those classics: great travel, diligent commitment, and honoring a spouse who departed too soon.
Jefferson City bustled following World War II, in part because of Carson-Newman’s rapid enrollment growth. Even so, it was a small school in a small town when a new leader, Dr. Harley Fite, came along in the middle of 1948, the summer following Jim Forney’s sophomore year. He knew the president had three girls, ranging from high school age to early college, but his thoughts focused on finishing college, leaving town and making a life in business.
Jim’s career objectives led him to transfer in the fall of 1950 to Northwestern University, where Uncle Sam found him and “requested” his military service. He was in the U.S. Air Force a year later when offered a six-month “sabbatical” to complete his degree through Operation Bootstrap. He remains grateful to Dean Isaac Newton Carr, a veteran himself, and Registrar Nina Rubin for creative scheduling that made it possible to meet requirements and graduate in 1952.
He concluded his military commitment with an 18-month stint in Japan following graduation. By the time he returned home in 1954, many things had changed– including Bettye Ruth Fite, who called herself Betsy and was not the high school freshman he remembered.
“I got discharged from the Air Force and she was a senior at Carson-Newman,” he smiled. “I started graduate school about that time because I couldn’t find a job, and I went to graduate school, at UT, looking for a job. And then Shell (Oil) came along with the big offer of three-fifty a month and a company car, so I took it.”
Thus commenced a 38-year career in marketing for the Dutch multinational corporation. The couple married shortly after Betsy’s1955 graduation and moved to Jacksonville, Florida in the heyday of an exciting postwar economy and a baby boom. As he worked to develop and promote new stations across Florida, she learned that life away from a small college town ran at a different pace indeed. Jim moved up Shell’s ladder and Betsy followed him across the country – eight homes in six states, the first seven in just 13 years.
At home, Betsy cared for their children, David and Susan, instilling in them what Jim calls her sense of “strength, intelligence and courage.” She taught school and earned a master’s degree in education, finishing at the top of her University of Houston class, as she had at Carson-Newman. She was active in church, social groups and took part in corporate activities and civic efforts.
Jim’s love for Betsy regularly manifests itself in a conversation with a smile and through his tears.
“She had it hardest. I was traveling – no telling how many hundreds of thousands of miles a year – and she, she was trying to settle down, raise the kids and get to know people. It was tough.”
Wanting to honor her, he made a gift to the construction of the Ted Russell Hall before she passed away, including a second floor outdoor area he dubbed “Betsy’s Balcony.”
While his love and respect for her grew exponentially over the course of their 55-year marriage, it took on new meaning as she refused to be broken in spirit by the cancer that ended her well-lived life in 2010. “‘No pity party for me.’” Jim recalls her saying. “’I won’t have any of that.’”
His generosity to Carson-Newman continued as he began looking for a way to memorialize his beloved at the place that brought them together. Since she had come to enjoy golf – enjoying it more than he ever had, in fact – he established in her name a scholarship for a member of the women’s team. Along with that, he said he wanted to provide something unique and beautiful, “like Betsy,” which led to an innovative endowment, the Betsy Forney Artistic Fund.
Artist Regann Hunt, a favorite of the Forneys, has been commissioned to execute the murals. To date, the fund has provided enhancements in Burnett Residence Hall, a painting in Stokley Memorial’s executive dining room and the Betsy Forney Clubhouse. Other projects are in the planning stages and should be completed in the coming year.
The clubhouse encompasses lockers for both men’s and women’s golf teams, as well as a practice green complete with Augusta National’s 12th green as a backdrop. Beyond edifying campus and the student experience, Jim’s tribute is resonating with a wide audience.
Kay O’Brien, wife of President Randall O’Brien, sees her role as encouraging donors to think of fresh ways to accomplish projects that move them. Betsy’s Fund grabbed her heart immediately. “Oh, they had quite a journey together,” noted the institution’s first lady. “And, since her passing, Jim has done the work of grieving, of learning how to be a single person without his partner here in physical form – like many of us will face. He has honored Betsy’s memory and life by doing special things here.”
“It is a love story,” surmised men’s golf coach John Minor, just feet from the detailed rendering of the heart of Augusta’s Amen Corner. “There is a sweetness in this gift that is very impressive, and we are forever grateful.”
- Mark Brown, University Relations