The little lady who opened big doors for all of us

Betsy Plank, APR, Fellow PRSA, passed away on May 23, 2010. She was one of the most recognized and beloved leaders in our field.

Betsy Plank, APR, Fellow PRSA, passed away on May 23, 2010. She was one of the most recognized and beloved leaders in our field. I fell in love with Betsy in 2000 when she made the first of many visits to her alma mater, the University of Alabama. In subsequent years, she added her considerable talents, insights, and passion to our PR program— and enriched it immeasurably. 

Her legacy at the school includes The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, student scholarships, and a distinguished speaker program, among many others. But we remember and celebrate her most at Alabama for two wonderful gifts of the spirit: her unwavering optimism about the future of the practice and her paramount belief in the importance of PR students and education. She often referred to students as “my children.” She was available for them at any hour, for any reason. 

That she opened many doors for students, professionals, and educators in the field is documented in her many distinguished awards; her “firsts” as a woman in being elected president of the Public Relations Society of America and the Publicity Club of Chicago; and her roles in creating the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) and co-chairing the first national Commission on Public Relations Education in 1987. 

My fondest memory of Betsy involves opening another kind of door at the 2007 PRSSA conference in Philadelphia. The Plank Center had produced a booklet, Legacies from Legends in Public Relations, as a gift to PRSSA for its 40th anniversary. About 20 students and I were gathered outside the PRSSA banquet hall, waiting for the doors to open so that we could place 1,200 copies of the booklet at the dinner tables. 

Betsy joined us and asked why we weren't distributing the booklets. When she learned the doors were locked, she said “That's not right. We have work to do.”  And with that, this magnificent 83-year-old lady walked to one of the big ballroom doors, rapped her cane loudly on it, stepped back, and then literally threw her body against the door.  It popped open and a very large hotel employee suddenly filled the doorway. 

“Sir, please unlock these doors and step aside,” she said. “My children have important work to do.” The man looked down at Betsy, took her measure, and then stepped aside. Betsy thanked him graciously and then waved an arm at the students, who followed her eagerly into the ballroom to do their appointed work.

Betsy, you were an inspiring role model, mentor, teacher, friend, colleague, and door- opener for thousands of us. We thank you. We love you. We cherish the memories.

Bruce Berger, Ph.D., is Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising & Public Relations at the University of Alabama and a member of the board of directors of The Plank Center. Previously, he was corporate VP of public relations at Whirlpool Corporation. He often writes about PR students and education. He can be reached at berger@apr.ua.edu

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