A Final Birthday Toast

– By Suzy Builta Hankins



Most funerals I have attended I knew the person for a short period of time or saw just one aspect of their life like work or as a grandmother.  During visitations I spoke with different people who knew these people from different areas of their lives – church, work, family, friends, just as I did.  They all had different ideas of who the deceased was as seen through their relationship with them. And it has always intrigued me as I realized that we usually just know a piece of someone. It’s rare for us to know someone completely, fully.  


Since Mom’s death I have sorted through many many piles and bins of papers, cards, photos and newspapers from the last 20 years of her life. I have a lot more to sort through – I haven’t even tackled her office yet – but most of what I found didn’t surprise me.  I always knew Mom was all about relationships, connecting with other people.  I found years’ worth of Christmas cards, sympathy cards from when her mother, son and sister passed away.  Notes of thanks and appreciation for a recent talk or visit at the farm.  Some of the names I recognized, but most of them I don’t know.  Some of the notes came from people I’m not sure Mom even knew well – they had just connected with her.  That’s what an encourager and teacher does isn’t it?  They touch us at a level beyond the lessons they are actually teaching and we are forever grateful.  


I also found lots of “before my time” memorabilia boxed up in her closet.  Now here were the surprises!  Not so much what was represented but what she saved that I had never seen before. I shared with my daughter, Joyce, that I was a little sad seeing all these things for the first time now, instead of Mom sharing the memories with me.  Joyce said a powerful thing in response, she said, “they were her memories, moments she held onto by collecting, preserving, and moving on.” That’s what we do isn’t it – one person’s memories/treasures are another person’s trash.  And it’s okay to let these things go because the memories I have of her will be boxed up in my own closet and held tight in my heart. 

But, I went through things anyway – as you noticed in the house!  They helped me fill some gaps in Mom’s timeline, connected some dots from random stories and photos I had seen and heard for decades. It helped me remember that my Mom was Betsy to so many people – and loved for being her true self throughout the years. While I have known her for 55 of her 85 years, there are a few people here today who have known her longer than that!


So, let’s talk about Betsy for awhile.


Joyce McCown, one of Betsy’s granddaughters, likes to say “No one is just one thing.” And she’s right, we all have the potential and time to do so many things in our lives and be so many things in our lives.  But that statement isn’t true when it comes to our character – who we are at our core.  While there can be many parts of us, and at different times of our lives we act on different pieces, or hide different sides of ourselves, most of us don’t become someone else over time.  Who we are shines through everything we do from childhood until death. 

And while Betsy Ross Builta was different things to everyone here, she was really the same to us all. 


Mom demonstrated three core principles throughout her life – leadership, service and scholarship. I have always seen these principles, been taught them by her actually, but never realized they were her essence – her core being before now.  I knew Mom was amazing – and she was a hard act to follow. Although, she never asked me to be like her. But when you see someone amazing who doesn’t want to be like them?


Mom led through her community service, passion for learning and natural ability to teach.  She led not just through what she did but how she did it.  She led by example – never asking anyone to do something she wasn’t willing to do or had done before.  


The earliest documentation I found showing her “I can do that – just watch me” leader attitude was joining the Sutton County 4H club in 1949.  She was the first girl to do that.  Now the girls outnumber the boys in the club.  When she would win a contest the boys used to say it wasn’t really hers to win.  That just made her work harder to win more often! 


From there she led on the basketball and tennis courts across the state and country.  She played women’s intermural tennis at UT in the 1950’s, winning the “conference” in 1955.  Later in life she would be part of the team that created Title IX so women could officially compete in collegiate sports. 

She led her community when she was a stay at home mom.  One of her proudest moments was negotiating with HEB in Lampasas, who was donating lights on the little league fields, to only do so if the girls could play on the same fields. Lampasas was a golden era for Betsy.  She had a group of friends who seemed to follow her lead on any topic.  After moving there and realizing the high school tennis courts weren’t being used and were in disrepair, she started a tennis program in the community.  Land was donated, a tennis center was built and a pro was hired.  We all learned to play tennis and tournaments were held. The high school tennis team was resurrected.  She brought Little Dribblers to Lampasas and coached, referred, teaching teamwork, friendship, and work ethic along with basketball skills.  She ran for School Board (I think she was the first woman to do that) when the Good ole boy system wasn’t benefiting the children any longer.  She lost – but brought many issues to light.  After Mom passed away I received a letter from one of our dear friends from that time.  She shared with me some of the personal situations Mom had helped families with over the years – from troubled teenagers to medical illnesses, Mom used her network of tennis, college, sorority and family friends to help those in need. And while I hadn’t known about those specific situations before the letter, I wasn’t surprised by the information. 

She led when she returned to UT to earn an MBA in the late 1970’s after getting a divorce and restarting her life during a time when divorced women still needed their ex-husband’s permission to trade stocks or open a bank account.  She was one of the first, if not the first, older returning female students to attend the UT MBA program. Her thesis was a marketing plan to fundraise for women’s collegiate sports.  After graduation she took that thesis and made it happen with the UT Women’s Basketball team’s Fast Break Club – the first booster club for a college woman’s sport. 


She was a leader when she started her own commercial real estate business, BRB Investments, Inc, and created partnerships to buy buildings and land in downtown Austin and helped revitalize the 4-6th street areas. She was a leader when she took the financial responsibility for all her partners and filed personal bankruptcy after the 1986 real estate crash.  She was a leader when she let one of her tenants, a homeless shelter, stay rent free during that same crash. 

She led when she was part of the group that founded the first women’s shelter in the Austin, also one of the first in the state.  She led while attending school board meetings, city council meetings and her children’s tennis, band and football activities.  


Mom was always part of the Austin political scene.  While she never ran for office in Austin, she had played tennis and bridge with several friends who you might have heard of – Carole Keeton Rylander, a mayor of Austin, and Ann Richards, a Governor of Texas.  Mom never asked for much as a friend, or a mother, she was much more a giver than a taker.  But, her friends helped her move forward after bankruptcy by appointing her to a grand jury on insurance fraud which led to a job at the Texas Insurance Department.   There, she studied the processes of the customer service department and realized the new tool called the Internet could help them out.  So, she did what she did best – she researched, studied, put together a team of thinkers and created a website for the agency.  Betsy was a self-taught programmer, designer and implementer of one of the first agency websites. The books she used are still in the house to prove it! I asked her once if we could throw them away since they were outdated – she said absolutely not – they were a reminder to her that she can learn anything so she could to do anything! 


When Mom retired from the State of Texas, after 10 years of service, she moved to Ross Farm where we are today.  She once said, “Turning 60 (and retiring) was the best time of my life because that was when I was able to do what I wanted to do instead of what the world expected me to do.”  And the last 25 years of her life were dedicated to healing the land, educating others about its gifts and sharing Mama Nature with anyone who was interested.  


Once she was at the farm full time, she tried several different ways to work the land – Holstein rescues and calf-cow operations were the most interesting ones. After the premature birth of her grandson, Tommy, she started looking at the land differently. Land became a living organism not just a resource or tool. It became her partner in the journey to provide healthy food for her family.  And like all things Mom tackled, she researched, studied, put a team together and got to work changing the way the world looked at the land.  Known as “that crazy lady that doesn’t use chemicals” at the local farm store, Betsy smiled her infectious smile and got things done.  She used her ability to connect with others to partner with other women and win over a few men in the field of soil health.  Since she started, the field has grown into an industry and Betsy is known as one of its pioneers.  She will be missed but not forgotten.  Her leadership will continue through all the men and women who answered her call “You can do it – now show me”.


Today, as we celebrate Mom’s 85th birthday, and remember her life with us, I hope you aren’t surprised by anything you learned about her today.  Maybe surprised by some of the activities and accomplishments, but not by the core of who she was – a determined teacher who led by example and served those in her life well.