Betty Cary, A Lifetime of Positive Leadership

positive leadership Apr 12, 2019

How Synchronizing Clocks is an Act of Positive Leadership

by Phylinda

Every morning Betty Cary made the rounds in one of her beloved communities quietly synchronizing each clock in the school.

Betty was an integral part of the community at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from 1941 until her death in 2015. This means that for over 70 years, which adds up to be over 25,000 days of her life, Betty was a positive leader in her community.

Her daughter Dorothy recalls that her mother had an absolute sense of time, and believes Betty’s care of time sourced from the same wellspring as everything else in her life: consideration for others. Dorothy said her mother led a quiet, contained life in her communities. She loved all of her communities and cultivated them her whole life. So why the clocks?

Betty knew the value of time, was deeply considerate of other’s time. She understood that taking action to sync the clocks would result in a smooth transition between classes for the whole community. Matching clocks meant teachers and faculty could prepare, and students could ready themselves without any last minute fluster. Betty’s action was especially important because the school doesn’t use bells to mark the time. By recognizing the need and taking accountability with this simple action, Betty smoothed countless transitions for hundreds of people. She took a positive action to effectively address a need, and so influenced positive reactions in others around her.

Betty Cary was the embodiment of an authentic positive leader in her professional and personal life. Her communities were home to her. Her ability to apply her talents to contribute to positive actions contain rich lessons for us. Some of the other activities of her morning rounds included:

  • walking around to check in with each teacher in order to see what they were looking forward to that day and asking if they needed any help
  • watering the plants
  • performing other tasks that she saw needed doing
  • talking to the children gathering for the school day to see how they were doing. She always made a point of learning everyone’s name
  • opening the doors promptly at 8 to begin the school day
  • staying present in the hall to help remind the younger children to stay safe with phrases like, “remember to skip not run"

She recognized that smoothing transitions would make things easier for others.

There are countless stories about how she did this. Every school knows the pressure of the lunchroom crunch. At GFS, the upper and lower schools share a single lunchroom so there was a rotation for the responsibilities of making sure the lunchroom was left clean and ready for the lower school. Betty made it a point to show up every day to express gratitude to the children for cleaning. She facilitated the process in another way too. If someone didn’t realize it was time for their turn, she would send them a gentle reminder keep the process functioning smoothly. She knew just how important it was that the lower school would come in to clean tables in the lunch room.

And there was the school Halloween parade where Betty was known as the “Queen of Halloween.” She always came in costume, sometimes as an actual queen, or Mrs. Piggle Wiggle (a popular character from a children’s book), or a flapper. Dorothy recalls, “wow, was she a flapper!” She loved getting into the spirit, as she did so often and so well. But as was her way, she recognized a need and filled it. Betty was the grand marshal for the parade in order to help make sure that every child got to walk across the stage, if they chose to participate. She helped them across, and encouraged them if they were panicked. She also saw to it that everyone made it across in the requisite time frame so that no one would be left out. 

Betty had a teaching role in one form or another from 1945 until 2005. She stayed on, for another 10 years as a volunteer. Her transitions in the school were gradual but always fully committed. So much so that as her vision declined, and she gave up driving, she switched to taking the bus to school in order to continue to support the community.

Well into her eighties, she deliberately chose a retirement home on the bus route in order to continue her work with the community. She recounted a funny story to her daughter shortly after moving in. On the first morning of school, carrying her book bag as usual, she walked past the reception desk. The receptionist asked where she was going and she said she was waiting for the bus to take her to school. As she sat down on a bench, she could see the receptionist’s and guard talking over what might be going on. It was to her great delight to watch their reaction when the school bus arrived to pick her up.

She knew everyone’s name and what was going on with their families because she took the time to talk to them. Dorothy recalls watching her mother “move through the world with respect and compassion for all. There was no distinction of hierarchy for her. She just didn’t operate that way.” One example was that every year she organized a Christmas tea and made sure that it was scheduled at a time when everyone could attend; such as the bus drivers could attend before they needed to leave for their routes. She made sure it was inclusive and that everyone could partake.

There are numerous ways Betty made other people’s lives easier and kept their resilience high in her communities.

Her sense of timing meant that she knew just when to show up. For reading hour she would arrive to be an extra pair of hands to help. As a trained teacher, she knew that some children would thrive with individual attention, apart from the group. She would listen to them read, encouraging and guiding them, in order to give them the extra time and care that they needed.

She would often go in to cover the office duties so that the staff could eat lunch.

And there were the little touches where she provided food for faculty meetings- cheese and crackers and such- because she understood that the teachers would be tired after the school day and could use a little snack.

Once, a music teacher had fallen on the ice and broken her hand. This was a frightening injury for a pianist, and Betty knew it. While the teacher was in a cast, Betty made sure to look at the teacher’s schedule so that she could be there at the precise moment the teacher needed help to set up chairs, or arrange other heavy items. She also helped the teacher by being tremendously encouraging through the surgery and recovery of getting the full use of her hand back. Which she did.

She was always looking for ways to take action to make her environments more beautiful for other’s inspiration.

She took care of certain bulletin board and display cases so that the hallways would always be interesting. She collaborated with the art teacher so that these areas at the beginning of the year, when there wasn’t yet student artwork to display, would still be interesting. Then, gradually, as the year went on, the images could be replaced by student work.

She also valued and maintained the school’s natural history collection. She cared for it and knew what and where everything was, and why it was important. If there was a lesson plan that could be enhanced by an object in the collection, such as the one on spiders, she brought the relevant portion of the collection out for the students to experience. Dorothy recalls that she, “loved introducing kids to nature.”

Betty loved to plant the seed to make the campus, or wherever she was, more beautiful.

Her care extended to the living things of the plant world too. She wasn’t much for gardening or weeding exactly, but she loved the natural world. One way this manifested was through a love of planting bulbs. A mass of bulbs meant a mass of daffodils on campus each spring.

She knew the story of every tree on campus and called them by name. She would talk over with the gardener about where to put a particular tree, the best spot for the tree. She was concerned about and took care that they were thriving. The school honored her care by creating an arboretum in her name.

 Her dedication didn’t stop at the school.

Every morning for as long as she was able, before anything else, she would sit down and write a couple of handwritten notes. She was famous for writing notes across all of her communities. She used it as an act of community building, a way of letting people know that she and others were thinking of them, a way of sharing events that happened during so that they would still feel connected. If anyone was ill, she made sure to write them a note at least once a week, if not more often.

She wanted them to know that their communities were thinking of them. Numerous people have expressed just how much those notes meant to them.

Then, everyone would share a big family breakfast before Betty set off for her morning rounds at the school, often walking the two and a half miles so she could get her exercise.

Her daughter recalls other examples of her mother’s tremendously generous spirit. She says, “we always had an open home with exchange teachers and students staying with us.”

Betty would host several dinner parties over time to make sure to have everyone to dinner at her home. She loved being with people and valued everybody. She believed in the importance of taking care of people around you.

Dorothy recalls, “in those days when you found a baby bird fallen from its nest, we were taught that the mother bird would abandon it to die. Everyone knew my mother loved animals. We raised canaries as a family. So people were always bringing baby birds to her. I was sent out to fetch the worms and such. She had a solid record if they were brought at a certain age. She nursed any number of birds back to health and released them.”

Betty’s leadership influenced so many lives. One example is that she instilled a sense of teaching in her children. Dorothy, and one of her sisters, are also teachers. Her sister jokingly calls it the “family business.” Dorothy also teaches at GFS.

She said her mother’s example inspired her at a time when women didn’t typically have both a career and a family. Her mother showed her that this was a career where you could greatly contribute and also be extremely involved in your own children’s lives. She notes that this is largely because the parent and children’s schedule was the same. And Dorothy says, “it turns out that is exactly what happened for me.”

She says Betty is “strongly influenced me to appreciate and love the natural world. She showed me that girls could do science, and bugs were interesting. She had no tolerance for squeamishness.” Dorothy credits her mother’s example for how she “learned to move through the world as a woman not influenced by the time’s typical notions of what was ‘feminine’.”

Betty was from New England and counted the Cape Cod community as one of her homes. Betty, Dorothy, and her sister all sail and have all served as Commodore, a role not typically given to females. Dorothy explains, “the ethos of a Commodore is that if you see a job you do it. That is how my mother lived in the world and that is how I move through the world.”

Dorothy says another of her biggest influences on how she lives her life today is that her mother, “created a real sense of the importance of community.” Though she says she isn’t good at “writing notes,” she does try to learn everyone’s name at GFS. “I try to create a sense of community by making sure new teachers are welcome and have a sense of who we are.”

“My mother valued everyone. She didn’t come from privilege but my life was such that I did. I have spent a lot of time personally learning and understanding and becoming aware of my privilege. I’m committed to personal work so that I can actively work every day in the classroom, the halls, and the world trying to be aware in a way that is inclusive and recognizing for all. I’ve spent a lot of my teaching career helping children of privilege understand and learn to move through the world in a way that is validating for all people. My mother knew everyone’s names, called them by name, and asked about their families. Every person had value to her in a very real way and that greatly influenced me.”

Throughout her gradual transition of roles in her communities, Betty continued to take purposeful actions that helped bind the community together. This quality, and her example, is the embodiment of Positive Leadership.

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