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Massey Award winner Russell known as a ‘beautiful soul’

In the fall of 1967, Betty Russell carried a burden into her senior year of high school that weighed heavier on her than the armful of books she lugged onto the morning bus.

Her father, already battling cancer, suffered a stroke that left him bedridden and unable to speak. As the youngest girl in a family of 11 children, it fell to Russell to help her mother tend to him.

Russell faced a different kind of battle over her high school and how long it would be allowed to survive.

The family lived in an all-black community along a stretch of dirt road between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough. For the previous three years, Russell had attended the all-black Central High School, but the county was in the midst of integrating, and a plan had been devised to close Central and transfer all its students to the previously all-white Orange High School.

In hindsight, Russell can see now that the school officials thought they were doing her and her classmates a favor. Back then, it didn’t feel that way to her or her classmates. If felt to them as if they were being asked to give up their school. They felt strongly enough about it to fight it. And win.

“They were trying to close down Central and make us go to Orange, but it was our last year and we said, ‘Uh uh, we’re not leaving.’”

Central would stay open for one more year as the county’s black high school, and that is how, in May 1968, Russell became a proud member of the last class to graduate from Central — and the first among her siblings to graduate from high school.

Russell’s father, a retired janitor, died in January of 1968 and did not get to see it happen, but if not for his prodding there is a good chance it would not have happened at all, Russell said.

“My father didn’t have an education,” Russell said. “I don’t even think my father knew how to write his own name. But my dad told me one thing he wanted me to do was to finish school. ‘If you don’t do anything else, just finish school,’ he’d tell me. And it was something I had promised him I would do years before.”

Her father had been sick throughout all her high school years, but up until his stroke he made it a point of reminding Russell of the deal they had made that he would not live to see her complete.

“I did it for him and for me,” she said.

‘A beautiful soul’

Her first involvement with students at Carolina began when she was young enough to be one.

In fall 1969, the 18-year-old Russell went off to college, not to study, but to work.

She did not have the grades to get into college, or the money even if she did. But her mother worked in the bakery at Granville Towers, and she helped her to get a job in the service line serving food to the students.

A lot of years have come and gone since then, along with a handful of jobs, but in 1998 Russell found herself back at the University to serve students again — this time as a housekeeper at Old East residence hall.

And in this past spring, more than 40 of the students at Old East were impressed enough with her service that they nominate her for a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

Russell treated the building as a national landmark, which it is, the students wrote. But what they appreciated even more about her was the way they treated all of them.

“Betty has a beautiful soul,” the students said of her. “We consider her our ‘Hall Mom.’”

Northern exposure

Russell quit her service-line job at Granville about 1972 at the insistence of two older sisters who had moved to western Pennsylvania. Come to Pennsylvania, they insisted, and you can find a better-paying job than anything you could get down there.

And that was how she ended up in Newcastle, Pa., once the home to The Carnegie Steel Company and once known as the “Tinplate Capital of the World.”

One sister was married, and her husband worked on the assembly line at a General Motors plant on the Ohio side of the Pennsylvania line. Another sister worked as a cook.

Russell did not find the great job her sisters had talked about, but she did find her first husband, a mechanic named David. Throughout the week, David kept the transit buses running for the city of Newcastle. On the weekends, he hopped on his Harley and rode with a merry band known only as “The Brothers.”

“We used to have a good time on those motorcycles,” Russell said. “Most of them were married guys with kids. They just liked to go and party.”

The marriage lasted 10 years and might have lasted longer, if not for the fact that Russell was still crazy in love with a high school sweetheart named Thomas Russell who would become her second husband.

The second marriage brought her back home to Orange County, but it lasted only about as long as the first one. There will not be a third, Russell insists.

“Ever since then I decided I had my fill,” Russell said. “I can do bad by myself.”

Home to Carolina

After coming back home, it took Russell a while to find her way back to Carolina.

For a time, she drove a forklift on the receiving dock at Northern Telecom in Research Triangle Park. She quit the job to care for her ill mother the way the two of them had once cared for her father. After her mother’s death, Russell went to work as a certified nurse’s aide at Durham Regional Retirement Center before landing her job at Old East.

Ever since, Russell has done all she could to make it a home away from home for students, and herself. Russell always wanted children of her own, but emergency surgery at the age of 22 left her unable to have them.

That fact, she said, probably explains why she has put so much into her job at Old East, and gotten so much back in return.

“All I did was think about how I would want somebody to treat me if I was away from home for the first time,” Russell said. “And that’s how I always treated the kids. You’ve got to show them a little bit of love and let them know somebody is thinking about them.”

For several years in a row, she gave every resident at Old East a Christmas card. And two years ago, the first time Russell got sick enough to miss a stretch of work, the students got a Carolina blue poster board and turned it into one big Christmas card that they all signed for their beloved “Miss Betty.”

“We love you, Miss Betty,” wrote Jason.

“Miss Betty, we all greatly respect and appreciate everything you do for us. Thank you so very much,” said Palmer.

“Thanks for the smiles, Miss Betty.”

“Thanks for putting up with us, Miss Betty. We appreciate your hard work and dedication.”

The Christmas card came to her several months after she nearly died from a cyst on her pancreas that had spread to her spleen as was poisoning her system.

“I was sick and didn’t realize it. I had me a part-time job working at the bank at night and this one night it got so bad I couldn’t stand up,” Russell said. She phoned her niece, who ended up calling an ambulance that took her to the emergency room.

“When we got there the doctors said, ‘In two more days I would have been dead,’” she said.

The surgery saved her life but left her a diabetic, and with a stomach that hasn’t been right since, Russell said. Sometimes, just the smell of food can turn it, she said. Still, she managed to go to work at Old East and impress students with the way she went on doing all the things for them she had before, as they explained in their Massey nominating letter.

“Despite having an illness which makes her tired all day, every day, and requiring hospitalizations, Betty makes Old East look immaculate,” they wrote. “Betty knows the residents and they are like her sons and extended family.”

‘On top of the world’

The award called for a celebration, down-home style, and so Russell set about to use part of the cash award from the Massey to put on a big picnic to say thank you to her students. The feast featured a deep-fried turkey, pasta salad and fresh turnip greens.

This past August, Russell suffered a seizure. A co-worker caught her before she fell face first on the steps. She had a similar seizure the summer of 2004 driving home from a Sunday dinner at her sister’s house in Hillsborough. After she passed out, her brother Rodney reached from the back seat to put on the emergency brake, an action than spun the car around and left it crashing backwards into a horse pasture. If not for his quick thinking, she said, they might have all been killed.

Doctors still can’t figure out what exactly is wrong with her, much less how to cure her, and Russell, at the age of 56, faces the uncertain prospect of never working again. This month, she had a doctor’s appointment to find out if she would go on permanent disability.

Last spring, when Chancellor James Moeser called to tell her she had won the award, Russell remembers running through the house screaming with excitement afterward. Nothing that big had ever happened to her — not even that Christmas card could compare. The framed award hangs in the middle of her living room wall and a framed copy of the award citation sits atop her television.

“When those students put me in for that and I won that, it made be feel like I was on top of the world,” Russell said.

Despite all the challenges she now faces, a quick glance at those words are enough to leave her feeling on top of the world all over again.


Originally published by University Gazette: Nov. 16, 2005

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