Elizabeth "Betsy" Weitzenhoffer Blass
Elizabeth Weitzenhoffer (Betsy) Blass was asked at age nine what she wanted to be when she grew up. She replied, “A philanthropist.” “That’s an awfully big word for such a little girl,” remarked the friend. “Do you know what it means?” Betsy replied, “It’s someone who gives away money to help other people.”
Betsy Blass, philanthropist, political activist and adventurer, departed on her final journey October 25, 2005. She was born in Oklahoma City, Okla., November 11, 1925, and was amazed at the life she could never have imagined early on--a life filled with passion, charity, love for the outdoors and the exotic, and an insatiable curiosity. Whomever she met around the world was touched by her unparalleled joie de vivre.
This child philanthropist felt early on the importance of helping others. She began volunteering at Missouri State Cancer Hospital while still a student at Stephens College, followed by volunteering in the development area of Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Her marriage to the late Noland Blass Jr. facilitated her move to Little Rock, where she immediately became co-chair of the organization of the Arkansas State Mental Health Association.
Betsy’s career in philanthropy underway, she was an early member of the Panel of American Women and secured the first planetarium for the City of Little Rock as a member of the Board of Directors of the Museum of Natural History. She co-chaired Women in Community Service, enabling women to return to the Job Corps, and ran the most successful membership drive to date, at that time, as a member of the Board of Directors of Friends of the Zoo. During this period, the world-renowned hostess gave a dinner party for the new zoo director, his wife and the zoo’s newest addition—a baby orangutan. Ever thinking of the comfort of her guests, she had baby crib at the ready and milk warming in the kitchen.
A founding member of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Auxiliary, she led the most successful telethon to date, at that time, to support the hospital; chaired the Greater Little Rock Conference on Race and Religion to establish the first police and community relations organization in the central Arkansas area. Betsy organized the drive and raised funds for Operation Heartbeat, a science project for Little Rock high schools which brought international recognition from the scientific community to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).
Her interest in helping the blind led her to serve on the Board of Directors of International Services for the Blind and give her first significant philanthropic gift—the Elizabeth Weitzenhoffer Blass Garden of Exploration at Arkansas School for the Blind. Others benefiting from her efforts during this period were the Working Women’s Preschool Center, which she chaired, and the Boards of Directors of Pulaski County Visiting Nurses Association, Pulaski County Family Service Agency and the Urban League of Arkansas.
She served as Vice Chair and Director of Seminole Manufacturing Company in Kalamazoo, Mich., and as a Director of Weitzenoffer-Seminole Foundation until her death.
Her insatiable curiosity about the world grew exponentially. When Betsy was not deeply immersed in a charitable campaign, she could be found deep in a jungle—perhaps Sumatran, perhaps Philipinno or Sri Lankan, climbing through Cambodian ruins, trying her hand (and flexibility) at bullfighting in Mexico or on safari in Namibia or Botswana. Two of her greatest adventures were with her grandsons, Oliver and Tyler Dilivio, as they cruised through the Galapagos Islands and Alaskan ice floes. Many of her most treasured hours were those at Seaside, Fla., with her grandsons, granddaughter Margie and their parents, Wendy Blass and John Dilivio.
Throughout her life Betsy’s passion for philanthropy burgeoned, and she determined that she needed to spend more time working toward building a better world. One of her first efforts on the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) campus was chairing the Medical Research Endowment Drive, the first to raise endowment funds for research on the campus. She was a founding member of the UAMS Foundation Fund, serving as chair, led the first major $1 million fundraising drive and chaired the $7 million drive to build Phase I of the Arkansas Cancer Research Center (ACRC). She was a founding member of both the ACRC Auxiliary and the ACRC Foundation Fund Board, which she served as chair, and remained a Life Member. Betsy chaired the UAMS “Invest in Life” Campaign that raised $65 million, exceeding its goal by $2 million. She continued to serve on the UAMS Foundation Board until her death.
A founding member of the Donald W. Reynolds Center on Aging, she raised $1 million from the Inglewood Foundation to support the Inglewood Scholar for Research in the area of Alzheimer’s Disease. This was the initial gift for what is now the Donald W. Reynolds Center on Aging. At the end of her fund-raising efforts, she was asked the total amount of gifts for which she was directly responsible. Over $50 million, she estimated.
Betsy believed that knowledge and research must be encouraged. She endowed the Elizabeth Weitzenhoffer Blass Lecture in Genetics presented bi-annually at UAMS to provide area scientists with the opportunity to interact with some of the world’s leading genetic researchers. Her final gift to ACRC was envisioned as she and her daughter Buff discussed ACRC’s needs. They felt that a laboratory used by scientists in the various disciplines would offer researchers shared access to significant facilities, enabling the sharing of knowledge and the advancement of science. It is the Elizabeth Weitzenhoffer Blass Cancer Vaccine Core Research Laboratory.
The faces that greeted her on her campaigns around the state and on her travels throughout the world piqued her interest in photography. Always determined to “shoot for the moon,” she became an internationally-known commercial photographer. Represented by Photo Researchers in New York, her photographs now appear on covers of books, in the Dutch encyclopedia and the homes of her most fortunate friends.
The faces of children during the Little Rock Crisis of 1957 focused Betsy’s energy toward the inequities they suffer. She supported every effort to enable children to receive the best education possible. That included her own. When Little Rock Central High School and newly-constructed Hall High School were closed, elementary school children were attending class in Forest Park Elementary School Auditorium, deemed unsafe by the Little Rock Fire Department. A new but unoccupied school was closed, and yet children were schooled in questionable facilities. She removed her daughter and her female classmates from the structure and taught classes at home until Hall High was opened to the children for the remainder of the school year. Betsy’s tenure as a teacher extended for a mere two weeks before local officials were moved to action.
Active in politics at both the local and national levels, Betsy became deeply concerned about the state of Washington politics during the Clinton years. Writer Gene Lyons came to her and asked for her support to write the book, “The Hunting of the President” with Joe Conason. Betsy and the late Fred Darragh were the silent underwriters of that effort.
Private though many of her accomplishments were, she was honored on both the national and local levels. She was one of only two non-medical personnel ever to receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree from UAMS. In 1994, she received the highest national honor from the National Society of Fund-raising Executives, National Volunteer of the Year. She was recipient of the UAMS Chancellor’s Award for 1989 and the Fund-Raising Executive 1986 Arkansas Volunteer of the Year honor.
Betsy Blass is survived by her daughter Buff Blass, daughter Wendy Dilivio of Denver, Col., grandchildren Oliver, Tyler and Margie Delivio, cousin Max Weitzenhoffer of Norman, Okla., and special friend Paddy Lewin of London, England.
The family will be at home at 34 Riverpoint. A memorial service commemorating her gifts of the heart will be held at 4 p.m. Monday, October 31, in Walton Auditorium on the 10th floor of ACRC on the UAMS campus, with a reception following in the Betsy Blass Board Room.
Arrangements are by Ruebel Funeral Home, www.ruebelfuneralhome.com.
Memorial gifts may be made to the Ronald D. Robertson Chair for Trauma Surgery, Department of Surgery, UAMS, 4301 West Markham Street, Little Rock, 72205, or other philanthropic organizations.