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Betty Bumpers uses faith, opportunity to build successful life


Betty Bumpers uses faith, opportunity to build successful life

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Betty Bumpers

Nov. 19, 2004 

A UMNS and Feature
By Linda Bloom*

For Betty Bumpers, being the wife of a politician was an opportunity to make social change.

She used her position – first as the first lady of Arkansas and later as the spouse of a U.S. senator – as the springboard for a national campaign to promote childhood immunization.

She traveled to Russia at a time when the Soviet Union was still considered the “evil empire,” made friends with Russian women and founded an organization called Peace Links to call attention to the dangers of the nuclear arms race.

Through it all, she has drawn upon the simple faiths she learned as a girl in Sunday school at her Methodist church – to look after others and to treat people the way she would want to be treated.

Betty, who will be 80 years old in January, admits that her positions of political prominence have provided certain advantages.

“I’ve always said I’ve used who I was shamelessly, but it didn’t take anything away from me…because I worked hard at it and had lots of tenacity to hang in there,” she said.

“My mother, I remember, one of her admonitions was the only unforgivable sin is the sin of omission. So I always felt like omitting to take advantage of opportunities was akin to a sin.”

She spent the first 12 years of her life on a farm in western Arkansas. The pastor of the Methodist church in that community also served as pastor of the church in the nearby town of Charleston, where her future husband, “a town boy,” lived. The pastor, she recalled, “certainly did start my faith journey and had a great deal of influence on my life.”

Her family moved for a time to Fort Smith, about 30 miles away, but came back to Charleston for her senior year of high school, when she and Dale Bumpers started dating. Again, the church was an influence – the only way he could get a car for their dates was if they attended a meeting of the Epworth League.

Her church, she said, was blessed with a series of well-educated ministers as she was growing up. “So I can name several ministers in my life that did have a great deal of influence on my thinking, both my faith thinking and my national and global thinking,” she added.

After Dale graduated from Northwestern University Law School in Chicago in 1951, the Bumpers moved back to Charleston and lived there another 18 years. She taught Sunday school and arranged flowers for the church, among other duties.

“In a small town and in a small church, I did it all,” Betty remembered. “We both did. He was the choir director and Sunday school teacher.”

Dale – whose father served two terms in the state legislature – had always been interested in politics and talked about it “even as a youngster with some of the older people on his paper route. Some of them that were very politically inclined would enjoy a conversation with him about it.”

In 1969, her husband decided to challenge Orval Faubus, a former six-term governor of Arkansas who defied the federally ordered desegregation of the Little Rock schools in 1957, for election as the governor of Arkansas. Dale Bumpers won and served two two-year terms before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974.

After Dale was elected, the Centers for Disease Control asked the wives of governors to help educate people in their states about the need for immunizations. “All of these childhood diseases needed to be taken care of,” she explained. “So I took it on as a project.”

With the help of the president of the Arkansas League for Nursing, Betty was able to get immunization clinics established in local communities. She presented her successful program at a conference for Southern governors, and Rosalyn Carter, then the first lady of Georgia, implemented the idea in her own state.

When Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as president in January 1977, Betty was already in Washington, trying to expand the immunization program. It was then she realized that “who you know” could pay off.

“I was the first person knocking on the White House door, wanting her to help me make it a national program,” she recalled. “About two weeks later, (Health, Education and Welfare) Secretary (Joseph) Califano called me and said, ‘the President tells me not to make a move on immunizations until I’ve talked with you.’

“I did work with Secretary Califano and, with Mrs. Carter’s help, we put together the network of governors’ wives – who we still knew a great many of – and helped to get the laws changed in all 50 states during his presidency, so that all school entrants had to be fully immunized.”

The downside, Betty discovered later, was that the emphasis on school-age immunization requirements shifted people’s attention away from the need for immunizations from birth to age 2. “In 1989 and ’90, we had a terrible measles epidemic in this country and lost about 120 youngsters that were documented – and no telling how may others,” she explained. “Mrs. Carter called me one day and she said, ‘Betty, what are we going to do about all these babies dying?’”

The two women started an organization, “Every Child by Two,” and, working with the Centers for Disease Control, helped to set up coalitions focusing on early immunization. “We’ve been to all 50 states, either together or separately, some of them three to four times,” Betty said. Nearly 80 percent of children under 2 years old are now immunized, she added.

In tribute to Betty’s tireless efforts to promote childhood immunization and Dale’s efforts in the U.S. Senate to increase funding to improve and purchase vaccine for childhood diseases, the National Institutes of Health named its vaccine research center after the couple.

But it was not enough for children to be well; Betty wanted the world to be safe for their future. Her attention was first drawn to the arms race after an accident occurred at an underground missile silo in Arkansas while Dale was governor. In 1982, the Bumpers joined a group of Democratic senators on a trip to the Soviet Union, where they received a warm reception from people on the street, despite the Cold War.

As she met with a number of Russian women, she suddenly realized that “here are parents, women, human beings that feel exactly the way I do, that what they want…out of life is a future for themselves and their families, especially for their families, their children, and that we had so much more in common than we had as enemies.”

She talked with other congressional wives and started Peace Links, which lasted for about 20 years. The organization’s purpose was to spread some basic facts about the folly of the arms race through women’s, peace, church and civic groups. Peace Links also brought Soviet women to America to participate in public forums – a connection she believes made the United States more willing to embrace the Soviet people after the fall of communism.

Betty, who will be inducted next year in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, remains involved in some peace-related activities and continues her work with “Every Child by Two.” The goal of the past five years, she said, is to help states start registries to keep track of individual immunization records.

Dale Bumpers retired from the Senate nearly six years ago, but the couple remains in the Maryland house where they’ve lived for the past 30 years, not far from a daughter, son and five grandchildren. Another son and two grandchildren live in Arkansas, where the Bumpers maintain a small home as well. They are associate members of National Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington and still retain membership in their hometown church in Charleston, Ark.

Betty credits the church with instilling in her the principles of social responsibility and faith responsibility at a young age – providing the foundation for a successful life.

“My husband and I have raised three very responsible children that are good responsible citizens, very involved in their community,” she said. “And we have both tried to serve to the best of our ability. I think all of it comes from that basic faith life we learned as young children.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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