First Coast Success: Betsy Lovett, philanthropist
by Karen Brune Mathis, Managing Editor, Jacksonville Financial News & Daily Record
Betsy Ross Lovett is a Jacksonville native and a well-known philanthropist.
Her extensive community support includes the Betsy Lovett Center for the Arts at The Bolles School Bartram Campus, the Betsy Lovett Surgery Center at St. Vincent's Medical Center and the Betsy Lovett Courtyard at the Main Library.
She also has been recognized for her work and was awarded the 2010 Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville Individual Hall of Fame Award, only the second ever given.
Born in 1930, Lovett married industrialist William Dow Lovett in 1950. After he died, she initiated the William Dow Lovett Laboratory of Molecular Neurogenetics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
She has two daughters, seven grandchildren and two great- grandchildren and she is as comfortable in New York and in European society as she is hunting big game and fly fishing as well as spending time on her farm.
The Daily Record interviewed Lovett for "First Coast Success," a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross.
The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and the replay will be at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at www.wjctondemand.org.
The following are edited excerpts from the full transcript.
Where did you grow up in Jacksonville?
My mother and father lived in Springfield and my brother was born there because that was the main residential area of that time. They moved to Avondale and two years later I was born at St. Vincent's Hospital and of course I have loved working so closely with them. We never crossed the river much. We had one bridge, we also had a barge that we could get on. Back then cars were slow and we just didn't move around that much around the city. We would go to the Beaches periodically. It would be down the 2 1/2 lanes of Atlantic Boulevard with stretches and stretches of pine trees and woods and forest and now look at it. The development is to me just sort of overwhelming around the city.
Your name is Betsy Ross?
My father was John William Ross and he was the Southeastern district manager for Reynolds Tobacco Co. He traveled extensively. I have a bag of letters in his glorious handwriting. He would write my mother and say, 'my dearest most beautiful Sally Ann and little Betsy.' I just treasure those.
How did you meet your husband?
My husband's family grew up here in Jacksonville. His mother and my mother were very, very dear friends. She had three boys and Billy, my husband, was four years older.
I was 20 when we were married. I went to the University of North Carolina for two years but back then we would laugh and always said we went to college to get our "MRS" degree.
Billy's father was early on with the railroad and then he had a seat on the stock exchange with Merrill Lynch. Mr. Merrill grew up in Green Cove Springs. And then he went into the grocery business and started what was called Lovett's in Jacksonville. He had a friend, Mr. Winn, and so they did Winn-Lovett. They sold that to the Davises way back in about '39. Several of them were in the service at the time and I think he stayed on and helped with managing it for a while. (The name was changed to Winn-Dixie in 1955.)
Later though, Mr. Lovett knew a Mr. Saunders who had Piggly Wiggly Corporation and so he bought the corporation and that was all over the country. Billy, my husband, was president of it.
When Billy finished college and the draft came along he went into the Merchant Marine Academy and he graduated from Sewannee Military Academy. He did serve on a ship during the war, then when he got out, he was going on to Harvard Law School.
Mr. Lovett had expanded into tankers and freighters and various ships and later did most of the cruise lines out of Miami. Billy went to work for him.
We were married before he went to Harvard Law School. We lived in Boston three years but as soon as he came home, Mr. Lovett wanted him to go to Havana, which was very exciting because I went down there a great deal and I couldn't stay the whole time because I had a daughter that was born in Boston and mother was wonderful and would keep her. But it was a glamorous time; to this day I still say Havana was one of the most beautiful cities.
His father had started the train ferry that went from Port Everglades to Havana. Billy was running that.
(Fidel Castro then launched the Cuban Revolution to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, taking control in 1959.)
We've never been allowed to go back. I'd love to go back but then again it has changed, so I love to keep the memories that I have of it.
From there Billy was in Ecuador where he ran a banana plantation for three or four years. That was a fascinating time. I spent an enormous amount of time alone because Billy did have to do this traveling for his father, who wasn't able to go as easily, but that is when I had such great joy getting involved in so many things.
You have had a fascinating life and you have given back to the community. How did that start?
I grew up with the idea. Mother always said, if someone needs you, you're there to help. I met so many fabulous people in this city. Judges and lawyers and business people. That was sort of unfair to them in some way because then when I got so much into fundraising, I slipped back to those wonderful people and tried to twist their arms.
This city is extraordinarily generous. I love the saying, 'it's not always what you know but who you know.'
In fundraising it is very important to do a background search on these people and find out all about why they give and what they like to give and their interests. If you don't know them at all, take someone who does know them with you and it's an easy call.
How do you decide what to support?
First, I love to work in an organization and find out everything I can about it. Once I've done that there is a great love there and then I feel like it is my turn to give back for all I've received from them. The receiver receives, yes, but the giver has unlimited continuous receiving. It uplifts your soul.
Your husband passed away at a young age.
He was 63. He had cerebellar ataxia. It immobilizes (the patient) after a lengthy period of time. The reason we did the research center was to make sure it was not an inherited disease for our grandchildren. This attacks the central nervous system. His mind was brilliant until the day he died. He was not in pain, fortunately, but he couldn't make his hand lift the fork to put his food to his mouth. And he couldn't walk. I had marvelous help, a wonderful man from the islands who is still with me after 25 years. He was an absolute joy for Billy and he lifted him every day and he dressed him every day, put him in a wheelchair, carried him to the office where he worked until the week before he died.
As a matter of fact the week before he died, I rigged a contraption in the country and had him out in the dove field hunting. I did have a brace where I could wrap it around his arm to support the gun but I sort of helped half-aim, but we laughed through the whole thing. It was a moment of learning and the greatest moment of appreciation for life and for the struggles people go through.
He did huge business projects even a month before he died. We were truly blessed and all that grows in your system. You're so grateful you can't help but want to give somewhere. I was blessed I could give.
It's like St Vincent's. I had an illness when I was 9 and they literally saved my life. It was a huge exploratory operation and I had a ruptured appendix and something like pneumonia in the bloodstream. It was just a complete infestation of me and they gave me really one hour to live.
They brought a cot in and put a big good-looking fireman, well I didn't know he was good-looking or not, beside me and they did arm-to-arm transfusions. Mother was standing at the end of the bed and said, 'oh, look at her cheeks, they're like rosebuds,' because almost immediately she said the strong fireman's blood was firing through me and I was back to charging again. As a result of that, I couldn't help but give. They literally saved my life. This was before penicillin, before anything. It was a trial procedure. So every day I get up I am joyous and I'm still hanging on.
You have been very successful in your endeavors and as you have said, you do not start a project without wanting it to be a success. What drives that?
It goes back to fishing. When I fished, I wanted to catch the biggest fish. When I did my shrimp net six feet across, I wanted to throw it flat. When I was 5 and 6, I was in horse shows and I just knew I had to win. I guess my competition was just born in me. And it was not the kind of competition where I got angry. I was always just as happy for someone else, but I know I had tried my best to beat you.
What is your style of leadership?
I like to give everybody an opportunity to be heard. That's the most important thing. This sounds peculiar, I sincerely like to be corrected if I am misunderstanding or misleading something in a discussion. Or maybe don't have a full background on it. There is always somebody that knows more than you and it is interesting because that is how you learn more truly. It opens doors.
We all have different outlooks on the same project. That is what makes success. It brings in all different aspects of why we are there and each one must be looked at and honored because you don't know where you are missing an opportunity otherwise.
A lot of people say, 'oh I wish I could do what you do,' and I say, oh, put on a wig and act crazy and I guess you lose yourself. I think I lose myself sometimes because the project itself becomes so much fun.
You do have fun don't you?
I do. I get up every day and I know at my age I have crinkles and aches and pains but somehow it's just another day to get out and get going. Somehow when you do a project and you see success, be it a medical thing or a library or even a helping hand in the grocery store, I have a little thing that runs through my head frequently that 'no man stands taller than when he stoops to lift another up.' And that more or less applies to everything we do.
In the library we are lifting education so anyone can be educated. And the same with hospitals, look what they offer, salvation, help, for the ailing, the hurting. And the arts center. About two years ago I was in the Publix shopping and had seen this lovely cashier and we chatted off and on but she didn't know my name. And so that day somehow she saw my name, Betsy Lovett, on something and she said, 'by any chance are you connected to the Betsy Lovett Arts Center at Bolles?' and I said, well a little. She said, 'I just have to tell you my son was at Bartram and kind of headed down the wrong direction and he got on that stage and literally I want you to know it has turned his life around.'
What greater joy. That money was nothing compared to the joy of that little boy's life being turned around. I sound kind of sentimental but those things do add up in life.
I've missed opportunities where I guess I didn't do what I should have, but we all do. We all try.
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