(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the awards dinner and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
Back in 1966, Jessie Rehder, then the head of Carolina’s writing program, appointed a 34-year-old writer to fill in as a lecturer for one semester. The young woman didn’t have a college degree, but she’d published two novels and a book of short stories that she’d written as a college sophomore. Max Steele, who came to Chapel Hill to teach in the writing program that same year, convinced Rehder how very good this young writer was. She needs to be kept on for more than a semester, he told Rehder. She’s got to be here long-term.
That writer, of course, was Doris Betts ’54, who not only stayed long-term-35 years to be exact-but gave so much to her students and the University that she achieved multiple honors for her teaching, her service, and her contributions to North Carolina’s literary and cultural life. She also earned the undying affection of students and colleagues alike.
“She was the most popular of the teachers in the creative writing program,” recalls Steele, who directed the program for 22 years. “I could never get into her office to talk with her. There was always such a line of students waiting to see her that I had to go back to my office and phone her. She was enormously important to the growth of the program.”
Doris was the daughter of mill workers in Statesville, where she lived until she finished high school. Her very first job, at age 13, was playing the piano at Bunch’s Music Store there. She attended both UNC-Greensboro and Carolina, and she made up for not completing her degree by earning not one but six honorary degrees later. By the time she joined Carolina’s creative writing program, she’d been-besides a fiction writer-a newspaper reporter, a book reviewer, a typing teacher for the North Carolina Highway Patrol, and the office manager for the Simplified Farm Record Book Company.
Through all the years of teaching and writing and serving on a superhuman number of committees, Doris Betts kept a hand in public life beyond the University. Among many other things, she has worked to promote literacy and to oppose the death penalty. She was-and is-an active force in North Carolina’s lively reading and writing community, a community she instilled with her own generous spirit. She is the state’s “First Lady of Literature,” and the main reason Carolina’s creative writing program is among the finest in the nation.
She belongs to the Order of the Golden Fleece and the Lee County Beekeepers’ Association. She’s been a trustee of several libraries and a director of the First Citizens Bank in Pittsboro. She’s been for many years an elder in the Pittsboro Presbyterian Church, yet she possesses what her student Randall Kenan ’85 calls a bootlegger’s ribald sense of humor.
She’s proud of her role in building the faculty of the creative writing program, of getting a group of good writers off the lecturer level and onto the tenure track. And she’s proud of her students, excellent students, she says, who have gone on to major graduate schools such as Iowa and Stanford and who stay in close touch with her and the program, write when they get married, have babies, publish novels.
Randall Kenan says her critiques were like little essays on your work, and extraordinarily helpful. Her presence in class was nothing short of inspirational, he recalls. She would give little sermons on form and story and process. One of the successes of the program is that she made all writers believe they had potential, whether they did or not. At the root of it all is her genuine love of people and literature-books and writing and writers, and talking about it all.
Doris Betts’ literary renown-the Guggenheim Fellowship, the medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters-all this has reflected glory on the University, which was lucky enough to keep her around for the long term. When she started here as a lecturer, she had no inkling of all she would come to do here. “It’s the nature of the University to engulf you,” she says. “You might not start out thinking you’re going to devote so much time and energy to it, but, well, one thing leads to another.”
Doris says she’s grateful to have worked with fellow professionals in such a warm, friendly atmosphere. And she was touched when a chaired professorship was established in her name as the result of the gifts of others. She served as the faculty representative to the GAA Board of Directors, and is a recipient of the GAA’s Faculty Service Award. But her fondest Carolina memory may have taken place in Kenan Stadium in 1980, when she spoke at Commencement-the largest audience, she says, that she has ever had.
Bland Simpson ’70, who now directs the creative writing program, calls Doris one of the most exemplary and productive artists and citizens the Old North State has ever known. Former students all over the nation, he says, continue to regard Professor Betts and the University as one in the same.
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. This year’s recipients are Doris Betts ’54 of Pittsboro, Richard Cole of Chapel Hill, Julian Robertson Jr. ’55 of New York and Richard “Stick” Williams ’75 of Huntersville.