Celebration of the Life of Betsy Ann Plank

Celebration of the Life of Betsy Ann Plank
Remarks by Maria P. Russell, APR, Fellow PRSA
July 26, 2010, Chicago, Illinois

Good evening, and thank you.

I am deeply honored and humbled to be at this podium, knowing that dozens more of Betsy’s friends and admirers here tonight and around the country, would happily step forward for this opportunity to pay tribute to Betsy.

Like many of you, I’ve been a member of PRSA for many, many years, but for much of that time, I knew Betsy Plank only from a professional distance – by her national leadership credentials, by her reputation and by her pioneering accomplishments for women in public relations.

Fortuitously for me, in the late 1990’s, I was asked to represent PRSA on the Commission for the Future of Public Relations Education, and it was this interdenominational partnership of 12 professional and academic societies and associations that established today’s standards for undergraduate education in the US starting in the 1980’s.  It also set the groundwork for the campus academic eligibility to host PRSSA chapters and the certification of PR programs.  Betsy had co-chaired the 1987 commission report with my first academic boss, Dr. Bill Ehling, at Syracuse.  Now, Betsy and I were paired to lead a subcommittee in updating the recommendations for a large section of the report, and we were down to the final weekend of meetings which happened to be here in Chicago.  By the time we were all satisfied with the recommendations it was 10 p.m., and it had been a very exhaustive — and exhausting — experience.

There was now a new challenge: the document still had to be typed, proofed, and photocopied overnight for an early morning presentation to the entire Commission.

Now, think back to the days of no laptops, no netbooks, no iPads, no full-service hotel business centers, no Kinko’s/FedEx.  (Some of you are perspiring at the mere thought.)

Over my strong protests, Betsy, my senior by a good number of years, insisted that I return to my hotel to get some sleep; she would do the typing at her apartment.

So—the retired senior executive of AT&T and of Illinois Bell and former national president of PRSA pulled an all-nighter – just like one of the college students for whom she was a tireless advocate.

The next day – tired but triumphant, Betsy delivered the goods and we got a round of applause.

Of course, even if there had been all of the trappings of modern technology, Betsy still would have banged that document out on her typewriter.  We all have files of her single-spaced Times-Roman reports and memos, some even as carbon copies. She was prolific, working late into the night.

I recall a particularly intense period of time when the Commission members were scrambling to pull the report together via e-mail exchanges and conference calls.  With each draft, we were reminded to send our contributions to the full group by e-mail – and also to Betsy –via fax.

A bit harried, one member innocently asked: “Say… wouldn’t we be more efficient if we helped Betsy learn how to use a computer?”  There was silence, a collective intake of air. . . and finally someone exhaled and exclaimed:  “God, no!  Do we really want to unleash Betsy onto the world wide web?”

Our dear friend Betsy did just fine without today’s 24/7 technology.  In fact, her preferred forms of communications remind us of the irreplaceable value of a face-to-face meeting over lunch; the no-nonsense approach of picking up a telephone to resolve ambiguous meanings; the enduring grace and gentility of a hand-written note; whether it be a note of praise, encouragement, condolence or congratulations . . . often accompanied by a photo or a small box of Frango mints from Marshall-Fields.

In many ways, Betsy was of another era, and we were gently amused.  But in sharp contrast, her thinking about public relations was visionary.

She dreamed into the future.  She knew that public relations would never evolve, never be a true profession, never reach its full potential in service to organizations and to society or to the democratic process without a collective commitment to education, to mentoring, to life-long learning, and to developing and supporting new leaders.  She moved those dreams and beliefs into personal action and she led the rest of us down those important pathways.


We all know that Betsy insisted that there be no funeral, no memorial service, so tonight we celebrate her extraordinary life.

But at the risk of a lightning bolt coming in through those windows, I believe that we must memorialize Betsy – not in just one evening of words, but in individual and collective deeds.

If she were in this room tonight, I am sure she would use this bully pulpit – as she did time and time again – to remind us of the principles that she wove into the establishment of The Plank Center for Leadership – note the carefully chosen word in naming the organization: Leadership – to insist upon the highest standards of ethics in the classroom and in the workplace; to share our time, talent and treasure – or even more of our time, talent and treasure with the next generation; to break down any remaining barriers between educators and practitioners; to be mentors, and to seek out mentors; to use research in setting strategy and to support academic research; to read, read, read; to look up from our Blackberries and touch real problems in our communities; to step up and step forward as passionate leaders in professional societies to improve the profession we all love.  In her memory, I ask that each of us recommits to these ideals.

Thank you, Betsy, for these lessons and reminders.  Just as you signed off so many times to us, we say to you: “God Bless. Godspeed.”

Thank you.

Maria Russell is a professor of public relations at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and directs the School’s Executive Education Programs.  She is a member of The Plank Center’s Board of Directors.

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