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Remembering PR Legend Betsy Plank

May 23rd, 2010 · 16 Comments

  Betsy Plank   

Today is a sad day for public relations.  Betsy Plank, 86, died peacefully at her Chicago home this morning. 

I first met Betsy at a PRSA conference 40 years ago, and she “adopted” me when I moved to Chicago 23 years ago.  We communicated regularly via old-fashioned technology — letters and faxes.  Even towards the end, her notes were thoughtful and inspirational.  She loved this profession, and mentored hundreds, perhaps thousands of fellow PR professionals. 

During Betsy’s more than six decades in PR, she marked many “firsts.”  In the early ’70s when we initially met, she was the first woman elected national president of PRSA.  Ten years earlier, she had become the first woman president of the Publicity Club of Chicago.  Over the years, she received many awards.  Besides PRSA’s Gold Anvil as outstanding U.S. professional, Betsy also received the Distinguished Service Award from the Arthur W. Page Society in 2000.  Public Relations News named her in 1984 as one of the Worlds’ 40 Outstanding Public Relations Leaders.  She is the only person to have been president of four Chicago communications organizations:  Publicity Club of Chicago; Welfare Public Relations Forum; Chicago Chapter PRSA; and the Public Relations Forum.  Last year, the Publicity Club recognized her with its Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Beginning her career in the agency world, Betsy eventually became Executive Vice President and Treasurer at Edelman.  From there, she moved to a corporate job by joining the Bell System.  After serving as AT&T Director of Public Relations Planning, she became the first woman to head a department at Illinois Bell, directing urban, community and educational affairs, issues management and economic development.  She retired in 1990, but did not slow down.  For the past 20 years, Betsy has been a wise counselor to many PR pros, and she has devoted countless hours to volunteer and civic activities.  

In her 2002 acceptance remarks upon becoming the first woman to receive the Institute for Public Relations’ Alexander Hamilton Award, Betsy said, “In my philosophy, public relations is fundamental to a democratic society where people make decisions in the workplace, marketplace, the community and the voting booth.  Its primary mission is to forge responsible relationships of understanding, trust and respect among groups and individuals – even when they disagree! Mr. Hamilton’s historic work continues to inspire and inform that difficult challenge today.”

A leading advocate of PR education, Betsy founded the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at her alma mater, the University of Alabama (graduated 1944).  I was honored when Betsy invited me to serve on the center’s board.  The PRSSA chapter at Northern Illinois University is named in her honor.  She also is founder and co-chair of the Champions for PRSSA.

Betsy was married to the late Sherman V. Rosenfield, and up until last year she spent several summer afternoons on his beloved boat on Lake Michigan. 

At Betsy’s request, no memorial service or funeral will be held.  Donations in her name may be made to The Plank Center for Public Relations Leadership at the University of Alabama, Box 870172, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0172.  Bequests can be made online through this University of Alabama link.  Friends are discussing memorial tributes, including something at the PRSA national conference and during a future Plank Center event. 

Hear Betsy’s own words about careers in PR in one of the several You Tube videos highlighting her wise insights about the profession.  Her acceptance speech for the Arthur Page Distinguished Service Award — “Extending the Spirit of Arthur Page to Those Who Will Follow” — underscores her deep, personal commitment to young professionals. 

Indeed, today is a sad day for those of us who knew and loved Betsy.  But Betsy would want us to focus on the future through a celebration of her life.   

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16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Susan Gonders // May 23, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks, Ron, for your tribute to Betsy. I was so blessed to be her convention roommate for the past decade and to soak up so much of her advice. Thanks especially for mentioning the vintage teakwood boat that she loved so much. Named “The Yearling” because she and Sherm bought it on their first wedding anniversary, it was a great place to lounge and feed the ducks. Betsy’s #1 commitment was to PRSSA students, and the primary lesson she taught me was that these students can be trusted to make wise decisions and to head our profession in the right direction. I am involved in Certification in Education for Public Relations because of Betsy, and I was in Ireland doing a CEPR review at the Dublin Institute of Technology. I sent her a postcard from Ireland May 19, the day she achieved her goal of getting back to her condo overlooking Lake Michigan. I hope that postcard reached her by May 22 because I wrote on it that I love her. But, of course, I’d already told her that many times. Through my tears, I am celebrating a life well-lived and thoroughly enjoyed. Nobody ever had more fun than Betsy.

  • 2 Joe Phelps // May 23, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Betsy was a leader and she cared deeply about PR education and the future of the profession. We will miss her.

  • 3 Shannon A. Bowen // May 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Thank you for this beautifully written tribute. I have carried around a hand written note from Betsy for many, many years. That note was so important to me in setting up each office space…. I will never forget how welcoming she was to me as a new acadmic in this field many years ago. What a woman!

  • 4 Bruce Berger // May 23, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Betsy loved to talk about others as “legends in public relations.” But truly, she is a legend among legends. I loved her for her incredible passion for the profession, her boundless energy, her true grit and that wonderful gift she gave in abundance to all–hope and optimism for the future. Lord, take care of her and bless her.

  • 5 Tom Nicholson // May 23, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    Thanks Ron for this remembrance of Betsy. She truly was amazing. We will link to this from the Arthur W. Page Society web site.

  • 6 Alan Dennis // May 23, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Although I met Betsy near the end of my professional and academic career, she renewed my spirit and touched my life with her passion for our discipline. And through the gift of knowing her, brief as it was, I realize there is never an end to one’s career. . . that we continue to use our persuasive talents, in all dimensions of our lives, until we draw our last breath. Betsy was a legend. To know her and to be able to stand in her shadow was a true honor.

  • 7 Karen Grubb // May 23, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    Many thanks go to Betsy for supporting the NIU Journalism students through PRSSA and providing scholarships. She was one of a kind and a great lady.

  • 8 Rhoda Weiss // May 23, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    How lucky are those who know the art of living for each other. For all life’s joys are doubled when you share them with another.
    Betsy shared her life and joy with so many of us. She inspired young women like me in the 1970s and for decades beyond to reach higher, move farther and live for others. She motivated us to serve students and professionals and to reach for goals we never knew we could achieve–that age knows no boundaries to service, which always precedes self.
    There are so many memories to share from this incredible woman who touched many generations as well as mine for nearly 40 years.
    Last August, Betsy’s service on PRSA’s Nominating Committee was about much more than presenting a slate of candidates. For the 20 PRSA leaders who spent three precious days with Betsy, it was an experience none will ever forget. She continued to teach us about leadership, love for this profession and PRSA and what it means to make a difference.
    For the many differences she made in my life and others, we will always cherish our times together.
    Bless you Betsy for the enduring love you shared. You will always be in our hearts. Our lives are so much better because of you.
    Rhoda Weiss

  • 9 Brandi Boatner // May 24, 2010 at 6:47 am

    Ron, thank you so much for this post and tribute to Betsy. Yesterday was an extremely hard and painful day for me. As a young professional, Betsy was like an adoptive mother to me who would always check on me and give me invaluable PR advice. She was always my light in my darkest moments during my unemployment after my graduation last year.

    She was my mentor, my colleague but most importantly my dear friend. I will miss her so very much but will continue to do what she loved, open doors in this industry for others to follow.

  • 10 Tracy Sims // May 24, 2010 at 6:54 am

    Ron,
    Thank you for this wonderful tribute to a great lady and guiding light in our profession. Platform Magazine students past and present benefitted tremendously from her advice and support. We will miss her deeply.

  • 11 Amanda Aviles // May 24, 2010 at 8:13 am

    This was a great tribute to a wonderful leader and mentor for PR students across the country.

    As a student at The University of Alabama, I was lucky enough to walk through the Plank Center regularly and see a portrait of Ms. Plank surrounded by her awards and accomplishments. She is truly an inspiration and will be greatly missed, but will live on as a legend in PR forever.

  • 12 Bill Masterson // May 24, 2010 at 9:26 am

    She left such an indelible touch on me as a student involved in national PRSSA work and then a new PR person in Chicago almost 30 years ago — an accomplished professional who took an interest in and counseled so many. Understanding a little more now what demands she must have had on her time, her generosity and attentiveness are all the more remarkable.

  • 13 Kathleen Kelly // May 24, 2010 at 10:22 am

    A great lady is gone from our lives. Betsy, indeed, was the “First Lady of Public Relations.” Some firsts that overlap and add to those listed by Ron:

    Betsy was the first and only person to date to be selected for three of PRSA’s top individual awards: the Gold Anvil Award (1977) for being the outstanding U.S. professional, the Paul M. Lund Public Service Award (1989) for exemplary civic and community work, and the first Patrick Jackson Award (2001) for distinguished service to PRSA.

    Betsy was the first woman elected by readers of Public Relations News as Professional of the Year (1979), in addition to being named one of the World’s 40 Outstanding Public Relations Leaders by the same publication in 1984. She was the first recipient of both the Arthur W. Page Society’s Distinguished Service (formerly Lifetime Achievement) Award (2000) and PRSA Educators Academy’s David W. Ferguson Award (1997) for exceptional contributions by a practitioner to public relations education.

    Despite all the accolades, Betsy refused to view her achievements as anything extraordinary. She stated in a 2002 interview with one of my former graduate students:

    “Mea culpa, I never had a plan! I simply seized opportunities as they came along and have been very blessed. I also credit my family—they always had expectations of excellence and hard work and were so supportive. I had the freedom to explore everything. There was no gender-bias there and, in retrospect, perhaps that accounts for my never recognizing any during a long career lifetime” (personal communication, October 23, 2002).

    I had the privlege of co-authoring with Cristina Beazley the entry on Betsy for Bob Heath’s 2004 Encyclopedia of Public Relations (pp. 622-624). Reading it now, I realize how productive and influential she continued to be after the book was published. The Lady never slowed down, not even in her 80s! In particular, she continued to pursue her passions for advancing public relations education and its students.

    Betsy will be missed by hundreds and even thousands of people, but many more will benefit from her significant contributions and the paths she forged for practitioners and the practice of public relations.

    Ron, thank you for your lovely and timely tribute.

    Betsy, I hope you already are livening up heaven, as well as lining up projects to make it a better place! Wish I could have seen you one more time. Love you!

  • 14 Bruce Harrison // May 24, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    I mailed the April birthday card to Betsy last month. We always exchanged cards. Our birthdays were both in April. I was not expecting one from her this time, knowing her condition. But it felt right, reaching out to her, letting her know her Bama friend and follower and admirer would absolutely never forget her.
    On the wall in my library there’s a plaque. It says I won the Betsy Plank award for public relations achievement a few years ago. Well, Betsy, I followed, you favored and I along with a whole lot of folks in rooms and schools and corporate halls are winners for having known you. Thank you, Ron; your tribute touched our hearts and Betsy would have brushed it off and, I know, loved it.

  • 15 Chuck Merydith // May 25, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Thanks, Ron, for your wonderful tribute. The world is indeed at a loss without her inspirition. For the past 60 years, she helped grow the profession, inspiring countless students and practitioners along the way. She was a force of nature with a brilliant mind and a great personality. Wonderfully, she dedicated her later decades to helping young practitioners enter and grow the profession. I join you all in missing her dearly.

  • 16 Chuck Ebeling // Jun 7, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    Betsy was my oral examiner at my APR exam in the early 80s. We developed a nodding acquaintance, and she was always very generous. A classy lady and a credit to the profession of building public relationships.

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