For the Love of Community

Story by Kimberly Brown

Betty LaGrone is more than just a long-term resident and worker of the River Valley area. She has devoted her time, care and effort to the community; with an undying vision of growth and success for the city of Russellville.

Betty is known for her lengthy periods of devotion and loyalty as an employee. As Executive Director, she has currently served the Arkansas River Valley Arts Center for 10 years; prior to that, she spent 18 years as Executive Director at the Russellville Chamber of Commerce. For more than two decades, Betty aided at the Pope County Public Library; along with countless numbers of community projects in the River Valley area.

Betty’s visions have been to see the Russellville community grow and succeed. Through her efforts, Russellville has matured in to a solid community.

Betty’s determination and perseverance began at an early age; she has always understood the importance of education. While raising two boys as a single mother, Betty made time to learn and to teach others.

“In high school, I always wanted to be a teacher. I got married right out of high school and moved to Los Angeles where I worked at a bank. I enjoyed it, but L.A. was fast- paced and I missed my family. When I came back here, I worked at Rockwell Manufacturing (now POM.) My youngest was only months old. I worked in the Rockwell office, went to college, and raised my sons. It wasn’t easy.”

“When I lived in California I went to night school; I was always taking classes to learn. I took primarily business courses, but also English, accounting, mathematics, and public speaking. I didn’t follow the curriculum and I never quite finished, but I learned a lot; I learned the things I wanted to. I have been to more seminars and workshops imaginable.”

Betty’s recently attended the Motivational Life Seminar that featured authors and celebrity speakers such as Mrs. George W. Bush. Through experience, Betty has learned the basics of non-profit work and fundraising; an area that seems to be one of her best.’

“Part of our response here at the arts center is making the public aware of the local and original talent,” Betty explains. “I enjoy the people I work with; they are happy and pleasant. People who are here want to be here. The artists themselves are tremendously supportive.”

As artists stroll in and out of the Center, there is a respect and kindness shown to Betty. Everyone seems to be family. Born in Dover, Betty has always had an esteemed ardor for family values.

As a young girl, she toured many areas of the nation as her father’s job as a farm-labor contractor often required the necessity of travel.

“I had a great childhood, and a great life. When I was a child, I enjoyed my friends and family; we just enjoyed being together.”

With five children, 11 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren, Betty’s well- blended family is continually growing.

“I am very proud of my family; they are very supportive and I couldn’t have done some of the things I’ve done without them.”

Betty credits her father and mother for an unlimited upbringing. “They were very family- oriented, and very giving. I am so fortunate to have had a wonderful mother who was so very wise, educated, patient and loving. She is a wonderful person to emulate.”

While working with Russellville’s Junior Auxiliary, a women’s group that targets and benefits children in need, Betty played a major part in the development of the arts center. After proposing to the city council that talented artists in town had no place to showcase their work, Betty witnessed the birth of the arts center unfold. With Betty supervising a community fund drive for the project, enough money was made to transform the building (formerly a swimming pool bathhouse) into what Russellville citizens know now as the River Valley Arts Center.

Judith Stewart-Abernathy, director of Tech Museum, says, “Her energy and commitment have been instrumental with the way things are at the River Valley Arts Center. She has established many great learning programs there. She is a core person with a plan and a sense of where she wanted the Arts Center to go. I think she has succeeded with that plan. She has gathered quite a few useful people, in terms of volunteers and those helping. She is very devoted to higher- learning and has been successful as part of the school committee.”

One of the River Valley Arts Center’s funded agency partners, United Way, has been a part of Betty’s agenda for some time. She has created partnerships with businesses throughout her lifetime here. Serving as a past president of Russellville’s United Way in 1983, and Pope County’s Public Library, Betty is remembered for promoting positivity, especially to the youth. If there is good involved, Betty is a part of it and is always striving for a better community.

“She has a niche for trying to figure out a way to make the community better,” says United Way’s Executive Director Beth Latham. “She just steps into something and makes it great. She is a pillar-level giver and constantly gives back through her work and through her giving.”

As a partner to the River Valley Prevention Coalition, she works to advocate positive behaviors to the youth of the community. By creating activities or extracurricular programs that aid in preventing drug and/ or alcohol abuse, violence, and other misconducts, the RVAC and its programs present positive reinforcement for young artists within the River Valley.

“Betty is very involved in making positive avenues for youth and the Arts,” Latham adds.

Betty became active in the Leadership Russellville Program, as member and president in the late 1980’s. Created as an instrument to identify young leaders in our community, the Leadership Russellville Program is an ongoing system that remains a success.

In 1985, Betty organized the first national- level track tournament, (NAIA), which also brought several thousand visitors to the area and had a great influence on the Russellville economy.

Betty’s latest community project is the River Valley Art Walk, giving local artists a chance to showcase their work, with the help of downtown businesses. Another, Party in the Parks, is an annual program that collaborates with Russellville Department of Parks and Recreation and River Valley Prevention Coalition to create a community art festival in the park for all ages. Her perseverance and community- driven attitude are not new, and since the late 1970’s, her goals have not swayed.

Devoting much of her time to pledging and fundraising for her collaborated organization, Betty has a hand in many associations that benefit the River Valley.

Betsy McGuire, executive director of Main Street Russellville, reflects on her impression of Betty: “She is so involved and dedicated to this community. She is definitely at the top of the list when it comes to those who have shaped Russellville into the great community that it is. She stands on her own merits; the things she does is what great leaders do. Her humility and modesty are qualities that certainly mark a great leader.”

Another example of Betty’s commitment to the Russellville community is how the current Chamber of Commerce headquarters was made possible. Through Betty’s efforts, the current ex-bank building was acquired as the Chamber’s location. While on the Chamber board, Betty acted as executive director, promoting the city of Russellville and developing industry tourism, new partners, and business growth to the city. Betty worked with government and community members to make decisions on issues that had an effect on the businesses of the community. She also maintained company and business memberships, individual relationships and non-profit organizations. Prior to that position, she focused on the development of tourism, promoting bass-fishing tournaments, and working with business to encourage their developments. Due her encouragement of sporting events, such as bass fishing, more than 50 tournaments have developed from her years of effort and devotion. Lake Dardanelle’s Bass Pro competition, with its regional and national prize winnings, brings professional media such as ESPN to the area, along with generating unsurpassed amount revenue into the community.

Betty’s ability to build relationships has welcomed such groups as the Retreads Rally, Avian Cavalcade, and Industrial Contact Team to the area; establishing long-term industry and travel connections with people from all walks of life.

One of Betty’s job assignments, as the Chamber’s executive director was to organize annual retreat to discuss future strategic plans on bettering the strengths of the community.

Jim Bob Humphrey, owner and president of Humphrey Funeral Services Inc., and former president of the Chamber of Commerce, recalls his time with Betty:

“Betty had a very significant role in the positive outcome of the Russellville community. As executive director of the Chamber, and member of the Industrial Contact Team, she met with representatives that expressed an interest in placing their facilities or businesses in Russellville, and was responsible for bringing new businesses, or working for independent companies.”

Many agree that her outgoing personality is what made her relationships such a huge success. Humphrey adds, “She is a very comfortable person to talk with, a great advocate and administrator for the River Valley; she knows a lot of people and she knew many business leaders.”

With great communication skills and keen eye for following up and offering feedback, Humphrey describes Betty as a great “cheerleader” for new events or fundraising projects in the area that needed support, on a personal level.

Humphrey remembers, “Her enthusiasm was contagious; there were many extensive and comprehensive programs that she had a hand in.”

Humphrey finds a letter written by Betty and himself, during their time at the Chamber, to then Gov. Bill Clinton. The letter was written to keep privacy on tax returns, and to ensure that the community of Russellville be able to keep its current drinking water source. Because of her response to legislative matters, Russellville is reaping the benefits today.

Humphrey says, “For years, Betty has been ‘digging wells’ that today are manifesting this community. The work that she did has had a great impact on our community.”

Another letter written by Betty, addressed the school district and school system suggesting improvement or encouraging support for better educational goals.

“She has considerable mediation skills, and she is a good negotiator. She is very kind, and she knows how to sit down amongst people with opposing views to help them find common ground. She was a great liaison with a great ability to compromise. She served as a great steward, facilitating projects, programs and relationships that have made Russellville a better place to live in.”

Betty continues to make progress in the community, leaving a great impression for many to follow.

Liberty Bank District Manager Roy Reeves, who formerly served as a Chamber board member with Betty, recollects his view of her. “She had a smile for everyone. She was always willing to help; very compassionate, and easy to work with. The Chamber grew significantly with memberships under her leadership and direction. She is and was involved in numerous groups bringing industries together. Anything that was good in the community, Betty was involved in.”

“She made it successful for two reasons: First, it is the job of the chamber director to help the business growth of the community and to make the community attractive to others. Secondly, it is in Betty’s nature and personal desire to see things grow and succeed. Her role was definitely to promote development and growth and she succeeded in that. Her personality is very humble, but she has played a very significant role in this community. Russellville is better off because she has been such an active caring member of our community.”

A former board member and local supporter of Boys and Girls Clubs for more than 20 years, Betty is still a member of the River Valley Rotary Club, Pope County Community Foundation, Arkansas Arts Council, Business Development Committee of Dover, Young Homes Board (Friendship Services), as well as the All Saints Episcopal Church Finance Committee. And the list goes on.

At the arts center, Betty has been responsible, with the help of her coworkers and volunteers, for more than 20 involved partnerships that support the organization. From secretarial, legal and accounting work to assisting politicians such as mayors and city officials, Betty has an extensive background in basically everything.

Her ultimate goal is to raise her grandchildren with as much culture and education as possible; envisioning a day where her greatest responsibility is to “sit on a porch and rock babies.”

A well- known and well- loved woman, Betty has served as an excellent role model, mother figure, volunteer, coworker, and leader to many people. She continues to be liaison and friend to many, on a professional and personal level; building and fostering a multitude of long-lasting relationships. Through Betty’s ceaseless devotion and works of servitude, the River Valley has flourished into a thriving community.

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