Betty Stephens: 1932-2018In Memoriam | Thu Oct 18, 2018 | 12:00am
Betty Stephens was larger than life, and much of that life played out on a Democratic stage. As she liked to tell it, when she arrived in Santa Barbara in 1969 from Beverly Hills, she felt as if she were in a political desert devoid of Democrats. But she had her feelers out, and it didn’t take too long for her to find friends, make things happen, and turn that desert into a progressive garden.
Betty and her husband, John Stephens, built their dream house on the top of a hill in Hope Ranch, and it soon became the hub of political events. Betty loved a party, and she loved to raise money for Democrats, Planned Parenthood, and Domestic Violence Solutions, among many other worthy causes. She hosted cocktail parties, dinners, and fashion shows. She was the consummate hostess; her beloved Southern roots and down-home, uncensored humor charmed her guests into happily opening their wallets.
One of her favorite stories was about serving dinner to the donors of a new group called the Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County. Betty believed strongly in empowering women, and when she and her closest friend, Mary Jo Miles, along with elected officials, served donors a grand dinner, she was finally getting Santa Barbara women out of the kitchen. For the event, she and Mary Jo dressed up in waitress outfits, wearing sheer black stockings, miniskirts with mini aprons, and even waitress caps. Thanks to Betty, “Dinner with the Electeds” has become a staple of many a live auction, although no one has been able to pull off the costuming like Betty did!
Among the people she hosted over the years were Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Speaker Tip O’Neill, Texas Governor Ann Richards, Governor Jerry Brown, Senator Alan Cranston, State Senator Gary Hart, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Valerie Plame, Sarah Weddington (the attorney representing “Jane Roe” in the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case), and our own Walter and Lois Capps. As O’Connell wrote in a eulogy for Betty, “When the Queen of England visited Santa Barbara in the early 1980s and didn’t go to Betty’s home, I knew the Queen wasn’t a Democrat!”
While she was the CEO of Excel Mineral Company (inventors of Jonny Cat, a company begun by her husband John), Betty started Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County in 1970, just a year after she arrived in town. Early on, she was appointed chair of the statewide Democratic Central Committee by Senator John Tunney. She also served as the chair of the California State Commission on the Status of Women from 1978 to 1980.
Along with other Santa Barbara survivors of domestic abuse, Betty participated in writing a book, If Love Hurts, describing her own sexual assault as a young woman in her first marriage. She spoke of hers as the “True Story of a Sweet Southern Girl.” It is a strong story of survival that is especially appropriate during these days. The message she wanted to share with others: “I found a strength I didn’t know I had. I did daring things … I worked my way through it and I worked my way out of it.”
Betty never forgot that she grew up under less-than-ideal circumstances in Gadsden, Alabama. She had role models, however, namely her grandmother, Bellezora Frasier, who had worked hard running a boardinghouse. As a young woman, Betty dreamed of going to California — where her brothers lived��— both to escape the abuse of her first marriage and to find opportunities for success. And she did. She and John, a chemist and her second husband, built their very successful company after a woman with 10 cats near the mine began asking for more of their clay, which was heaped near her house. After John developed Alzheimer’s, Betty became one of the first women to run a mining company.
Betty was generous, humorous, unpredictable, and smart. At a Planned Parenthood event in Montecito, she stopped the auction cold when she bid $5,000 on a pair of pink tennis shoes signed by Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, identical to the ones that Wendy wore to filibuster the Texas State Senate when it tried to severely restrict access to abortion. Betty offered up antiques and jewelry from her collection for an auction to raise funds for Democratic Women.
The organizations Betty supported always had a strong personal connection for her, and she received an immense satisfaction from being a benefactor. She loved light opera and gave generously to The Granada Theatre and to the Civic Light Opera. When her son Bruce died of a heart attack, she became an advocate for the American Heart Association and its programs. Her extraordinary generosity was felt among a wide range of community organizations as Betty looked for ways to share her good fortune with others. For example, she bought the Santa Barbara County Fire Department a big red fire truck. In recent times, she expanded her support to include the City College jazz band and other organizations.
At the memorial service in August for Betty, another quote from Jack O’Connell was read: “For over 50 years she was a strong, vocal proponent of women’s rights. Many, if not all, of the gender equity gains in our country are directly attributable to the strategic, intellectual, and financial support that Betty provided.”
At the same memorial, the program handed out began with a Maya Angelou poem, which aptly describes this incredible woman:
Yes, Betty set a standard of service for our community. She is no longer with us, but her contribution to our city, county, and country made a huge impact and will live on. The importance of grassroots organizing, standing up for the rights of women, and having a good time while doing good will always be a part of her legacy.
And yes, Betty Stephens was larger than life. She will be missed by all who were touched by her influence — her family and friends, of course, but also the beneficiaries of all the causes and programs she supported so generously. Our lasting tribute to Betty will be to carry on and work diligently to honor her dreams of equity for women, an end to domestic violence, and fairness and opportunity for all. And, of course, to have a good time while doing so!