Fear of failure -- that’s what stops people from taking on a challenge, says Betty Bumpers. She has no such fear.
“I’ve always been a cause person,” says the former first lady of Arkansas (husband Dale Bumpers was governor from 1971-1975 and a U.S. senator from 1975-1999). “I always had lots of energy, which in a small town (she’s from Grand Prairie near Charleston) means you get called on to participate in fundraisers, heart drives, cancer drives. I learned who the ‘horses’ were for community organizing.”
The ability to recruit those horses and harness their strength makes Bumpers one of the state’s most celebrated Women to Watch. Tireless, bold and resourceful, the 87-year-old powerhouse is renowned for establishing programs to immunize the nation’s school children and for creating Peace Links, committed to raising awareness about the nuclear arms race.
The Department of Human Services’ Division of Community Service and Non-profit Support chose Bumpers to receive the Billie Ann Myers Paragon Award for her promotion of volunteerism and childhood vaccinations. The award was presented during the Summit conference held April 26-27 in Little Rock.
“Betty Bumpers embodies what the Paragon Award stands for,” said DCSNS director Sherry Middleton. “Through her volunteerism and leadership, she has caused significant improvement in the quality of life for all Arkansans.”
It all started when, at 24, Betty Callan Flanagan, a fifth-grade teacher, married her childhood sweetheart, Dale Bumpers, when he was attending law school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. They came back to Charleston after he graduated, where he started a law practice. They had three children. He took up politics and became governor.
“That’s when the Centers for Disease Control came out – they did for all governors’ wives – and asked if we could help educate people about vaccines,” says Bumpers in her white-tiled kitchen, fiddling with a half-removed adhesive bandage covering scratches on her hand from gardening. A former farm girl, she’s growing lettuce, strawberries, onions, basil and iris in her west Little Rock yard.
“Then I was stuck figuring out how we could do it,” she continues. “A friend of mine, Nell Balkman, was head of the Arkansas League of Nursing. She laid out a plan in ‘73. We made the governor’s mansion the meeting place” and enlisted the help of organizations such as the Cooperative Extension Service, the most extensive network in the state, and the National Guard.
“I used who I was shamelessly” to recruit for the cause, Bumpers says. “I had luncheons at the mansion to gather the players. It involved a year of work.”
The initial effort immunized more than 350,000 children on one Saturday. “It was a wonderful cooperative undertaking using in-place agencies,” she says. “The CDC used it as a national model and it became Every Child in 1974.”
After moving to Washington D.C. as a senator’s wife, Bumpers went to see First Lady Rosalynn Carter in 1977. “I really wanted her help, and I really wanted to see the upstairs of the White House,” she recalls with a smile. “We campaigned for two years. Only 11 states had laws that school entrants had to be immunized. We got all the laws changed.”
But the program’s success had a downside: People started to think they could wait until their children were about to go to school to immunize them. “Two hundred kids, most of them under the age of 6, died in an outbreak of measles because they weren’t immunized,” she says, still distressed about it. “That’s when we started Every Child by 2. We traveled to every state, putting together coalitions. Now the immunization rate for children from birth to 2-years-old is 90%.”
The idea for Peace Links began in the 1980s when her daughter Brooke–like many American kids–became concerned about nuclear war.
As noted in an interview for a study on U.S. peace activist women in the 1980s by Ginger Hanks Harwood of LaSierra University in Riverside, Calif., Bumpers attributes her decision to work toward abolishing nuclear weapons to a conversation with her daughter.
“It literally started because my daughter tuned me in to ... what she perceived as a lack of future,” she said in the interview. “She turned to me as we were driving back to Arkansas [from Washington] one day and said that she would like to get together during the summer and talk about what we’d do as a family in case of a national disaster that we survived.”
Brooke’s comment “startled me so much that I thought I’d just handle it with levity and by saying, “Well, honey, I guess we’d just go back to Arkansas.” Brooke’s response: “Don’t be so stupid, Mother.”
So Bumpers called other Senate wives and started Peace Links. “In a short time we had 30,000 participants, mostly women,” she says.
One of her proudest memories of those days was when she went to Russia (then the U.S.S.R.) and spoke to the Soviet Women’s Committee, chaired by Soviet astronaut Valentina Nikolaevna Tereshkova.
“We brought a group of 25 Russian women to the U.S.,” Bumpers says. “They went to 18 coalition meetings – open forums in churches, libraries, museums, from Las Vegas to Shawnee, Okla. – that drew big crowds.
“These women formed a human connection with American audiences. That set the stage and attracted huge numbers of women who learned that the Russians were just like us. It helped end the Cold War and encouraged women to assume responsibility for national security.”
The Soviet Union existed until 1999, and Peace Links disbanded in 2001.
Were there disasters along the way? “Not really, but I fell flat on my face several times,” Bumpers says. “And there are always people who are ugly to you.”
She recalls that at one meeting, a military man condescendingly asked her what she hoped to accomplish with her anti-nuclear movement. “Where are you taking us with the nuclear arms race?” she responded. “They stopped sending military guys after that.”
Nuclear proliferation, she adds, “is still the biggest insanity I can think of.”
Every Child by 2 faces continuing challenges because of claims that vaccines induce autism, “although 14 prestigious organizations dispute it,” Bumpers says. “Rosalynn and I still go to coalition meetings and offer support. And our website, www.ECBT.org, gets plenty of attention.”
The Bumpers returned to Little Rock two years ago, where two of their children and four of their seven grandchildren live.
“When Dale retired [after leaving the Senate, he became director of the Center for Defense Information, which analyzes components of U.S. security and defense policy, then in 2000 joined the Washington law firm Arent Fox LLP] he decided to stop and smell the roses and not do anything he doesn’t want to do,” she says.
“And after cooking for 63 years, I decided that was enough. We go out to lunch almost every day.”
Along with spending time with family and friends, “I’m trying to be an urban farmer,” she says. “I have five hens that produce plenty of eggs. I had to move them over to the side of our back yard because they destroyed the grass. We had to get the yard re-sodded, which made those eggs pretty expensive.”
And what’s the urban farmer’s stance on stopping to smell the roses? “I never quit.”