BETTY JO (FITE) HAYS IS ENERGIZED BY COMMUNITY SERVICE, ART
by ELLEN ORR
The word “culture” means different things to different people. A biologist may hear the word and think of cell culture, the painstaking growing and sustaining of cells in laboratories. A farmer, meanwhile, will surely think of (agri)cultural methods used to boost crop health. A fine arts connoisseur will speak of her exposure to “high culture”—museums, symphonies, the ballet. The rest of us, meanwhile, understand the term plainly: culture is traditions, values, and behaviors. It’s how we live with one another in community.
Betty Jo (Fite) Hays understands this to be special. “Humans are the only animals on the planet who live in communities like we do,” she said. “There are other species, of course, that live in batches, groups, flocks, and the like, but that’s not quite the same thing as human community. We work with ideas.” These ideas—from political to poetic, educational to engineering— feed us all. They grow and sustain us; they give us health.
But ideas on their own are impotent. Ideas need implementation. “It’s a fascinating thing to see concrete progress from something as ephemeral as an idea or a combination of ideas,” Betty Jo said. “It’s very exciting. The way communities make progress is when people pitch in together, collaborate with one another, find a common vision, work toward a common goal. That’s what makes the viable community with a high quality of life. Some [people] expect to receive from the community but make little effort to contribute to it—and yet, it is only to the degree that we all contribute and participate that our communities thrive and prosper.”
(Culture stems from the Latin colere, which means “tend, nurture.” It means ongoing care.)
Betty Jo has been caring for her communities for decades. Her most basic résumé of service is 490 words long, beginning during her college years and jutting up to present day. “That list [of service] is only that long because I’m so old,” Betty Jo said, though this is assuredly not true; few people will ever boast such a record of community service, no matter their life spans. She has served on at least 12 nonprofit boards, chaired six of those boards, and been president of at least nine organizations.
Before Head Start programs existed, she founded a nonprofit daycare and preschool for disadvantaged children. When public schools lost arts funding, she taught music for free. When, inspired by TRAHC, she longed for a stronger arts community in Hope, she founded the Hempstead County Arts Council (now the Southwest Arkansas Arts Council). The list goes on: there’s a need, and Betty Jo does something about it. She lives according to an ethos of usefulness. “My mother used to lecture us about being useful, and it really stuck with me,” she said. “My parents thought that lives should be lived usefully.”
This way of life has benefited the people around her well, but it has also sustained Betty Jo herself. Since the death of her husband, Tom, in 2008, she has relied largely on this philosophy to keep going despite her grief. “Living a useful life propels me to function even when ennui tries to take over,” she said.
Though there are ways we all can prove useful, Betty Jo is particularly endowed with knowledge, talent, and ability to serve those around her. When she set off for Virginia to attend Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College) in 1955, she assumed she would major in music, which had always been her passion and most recognized talent. But when the liberal arts curriculum led her into an economics classroom, she found a competing academic love. “Rather than a business course, [economics] was taught more as a philosophy course, and I was fascinated with it,” she said. “I thought, ‘You know, I should know more about this because I don’t know anything about it.’ I’m so glad I became interested in economics because it has really enriched my life and has allowed me to have some clue about what’s going on in this world.”
After graduating with a degree in economics, Betty Jo sought employment at banks all over the United States. “I was met with remarks like, ‘Well, Miss Fite, you’re very well prepared for our executive training position, but we don’t hire women,’” she recalled. “That was 1959. It was a real awakening. I was not prepared for this at all. I think my father was a very liberated man. He told us we could do whatever we thought we wanted to do, but he also said to have a little humility, you’ll prove yourself in time. So I took what was really a clerical position at First National Bank in Dallas.”
Betty Jo would, decades later, earn her master’s degree in business administration from East Texas State University (now TAMU-Texarkana) and become an adjunct business and economics professor at the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana (UAHT).
Music, too, remains a passion and expertise. Betty Jo is a member of the Texarkana Regional Chorale, has sung all over the world (search for her on YouTube), performs in musical theatre, sings at First Presbyterian Church of Hope, and just recently founded the Cornerstone Chorus, having moved to the retirement community in late 2017 and having found no community choir to join. “I’m getting 12 or 15 singers every time we rehearse,” she said, and she is excited to see these numbers grow. “My goals are simpler now than they used to be, and closer to home.”
But the “success” of the chorus is not the real point. As in most of Betty Jo’s pursuits, measurable successes, while desirable, are secondary to the true intent: building community, enriching lives, taking care of one another. She understands these aims to be central to living a meaningful life. “To hold ourselves apart [from one another] is to deny one of our highest capabilities as human beings: the power to create communities of caring,” she said. “The ideas are really much more important than any individual accomplishments.”