2016-08-18 / Opinions

First Lady Betty Sanders served us with grace, sense of humor

By LORAN SMITH
columnist

A TLANTA – Betty Foy Sanders, the widow of former Georgia Governor Carl Sanders, at 90, looks regal just like she always has. Appearing much younger than her years, she was reminiscing with friends about her wedding which took place in Statesboro 69 years ago.

It was hot, 103 degrees at the First Baptist Church in an era devoid of air conditioning. As the ceremony evolved, she saw tears sliding down her mother’s cheeks. Naturally she was touched by her mother’s emotions but soon realized the heat was so intense that the candles were melting much to her mother’s dismay. Her tears were not that she was losing her daughter.

Betty Sanders, among other heart-warming qualities, has always had a sense of humor which is a considerable asset for a First Lady. Betty and Carl became an accomplished team with a bent for giving back to the state and their communities. Carl was a handsome, well-spoken and cogent leader whose political skills not only served him well, but also the state.

During his term as governor, 1963-66, Georgia prospered so much (the state enjoyed a $140 million dollar surplus when Sanders left office), you would have thought that the voters would have welcomed him back with open arms four years later. Governors in those years could not succeed themselves. He had to sit out four years before running again. In that election, Carl was rejected – which was reminiscent of the British voters turning Winston Churchill out of office in 1945 after he played a major role in leading the Allies to victory in World War II.

Seeing Betty connect with her friends on her birthday stimulated a reminder of a nice interlude with her and Carl on a cold winter’s day a few years ago. A story on the Governor had appeared in the Georgia football programs, related to his underwriting an athletic scholarship (he had come to UGA as a quarterback on a scholarship). I volunteered to take a box of programs to his office. Owing to the weather, he had left early for his home on Tuxedo Road which prompted Betty to extend an invitation to join them for lunch.

The kitchen staff was serving oyster soup – nothing better on a chilly day, especially if the hostess included saltine crackers. In the warm conversation, which ensued, Betty offered the view that while losing is hard to take, especially for a man of Carl’s competitive ilk, there was a silver lining in his political defeat in 1972. Four more years in the governor’s mansion would likely have kept him from building the leading law firm in Atlanta which now is an international firm. “Sometimes, things work out for the best,” she smiled.

Betty grew up on a large farm in Bulloch County, one without electricity and running water, but early on she was recognized for possessing an inquiring mind with a deep and abiding love for drawing which segued into a cultivation of art. She became friends with Lamar Dodd, the celebrated UGA artist, who headed up the Art Department at the University, where she enrolled after a year at Georgia Teachers College in her hometown. She would become a revered artist herself.

In high school, she was about as well rounded as possible, playing the piano and basketball. She was also a cheerleader and marched with the band; took dancing lessons and knew how to boil peanuts for her girlfriends when they came out to the farm.

The rural life was the good life. Even when her family moved to town, she maintained a longing for the outdoors and her rural roots which made her compatible with the voter constituency when Carl ran for political office. Her background enabled her to converse with people of all walks of life.

As First Lady she had affection for underscoring and promoting the arts throughout the state and utilized her husband’s political clout to advance her advocacy of the arts which influenced the development of museums across the state along with focusing attention for the arts in the University system of Georgia.

Once, at Sea Island, when Carl was hosting out-of-state businessmen, whom he was recruiting to bring business to Georgia, he noticed that his one-time adversary Marvin Griffin was unable to secure seating for dinner. When Carl invited one of the most colorful raconteurs ever to hold office in the state to join him and his party, it wasn’t long before Griffin had Carl’s guests guffawing with uncontrolled laughter. After dinner, they remarked, “How in the world did you defeat a fellow like that?”

These and other colorful stories over oyster soup on a chilly winter day, always a reminder that while Carl and Betty Sanders knew what it was like to enjoy a champagne lifestyle, they appreciated the fact that they evolved from humble roots.

They were difference makers, and our state is the beneficiary of their legacy.

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