Tributes to one of Georgia’s most remarkable and respected women circulated throughout the state on Wednesday as residents learned that Kennesaw State University President Emeritus Dr. Betty Siegel had died.
Speaking from the airport in Atlanta on Wednesday afternoon, having just flown in from his home in Arlington, Massachusetts, one of Siegel’s sons, Dr. Michael Siegel, told the MDJ his mother was “absolutely extraordinary.”
“Mom was always famous for her red glasses and powerful kind of red business suits and I thought to myself it’s almost as if the world was kind of black and white or gray and she always moved in color,” he said. “Just absolutely stunning.”
Siegel, 89, passed away late Tuesday afternoon, according to a news release from KSU spokeswoman Tammy DeMel, which described Siegel’s mark on the university as indelible.
“The Kennesaw State University community is mourning the loss of one of its most beloved leaders,” said KSU President Pamela Whitten in the news release. “Betty Siegel has been described affectionately by many as a force of nature, and her energy, enthusiasm and passion for Kennesaw State University will be long remembered. Without her leadership, vision and commitment to excellence, Kennesaw State would not be what it is today.”
Humble beginningsBorn and raised a coal miner’s daughter in the hills of eastern Kentucky, Siegel was a pioneer for women in the education field, shattering the proverbial glass ceiling on a number of occasions.
Siegel was valedictorian of her eighth grade and high school classes and the first in her family to graduate from college. She was known to credit her supporters with the quote, “Whenever you see a turtle on a post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”
She was the first female president of an institution in the University System of Georgia and the longest-serving female president of a public university in the nation from 1981 to 2006, when she took KSU from a small state college with 3,500 students and 15 degrees to a university with 18,000 students and 55 degrees.
“I wanted them to have a life-changing experience,” Siegel once said of the students and her work to expand programs, resources and services on campus.
MDJ columnist Dick Yarbrough recalled the moment Siegel’s appointment as KSU president was announced in 2017, when the surprise of a woman getting the top job caught some people in the community off guard.
“Riding back from Athens one afternoon a number of years ago with the late Otis Brumby, Jr., publisher of the Marietta Daily Journal, he told me of a recent phone call he had received from a reader who sounded extremely overwrought,” Yarbrough wrote. “The conversation went something like this: ‘Otis, did you hear what just happened at Kennesaw College?’ This being in the days before instant communications, Brumby was concerned that something dire had taken place at the institution while he was away from the office and asked with some trepidation, ‘What has happened?’ A long pause and then the voice on the other end of the line exclaimed, ‘Otis, they got them a GIRL president!’”
Yarbrough said Siegel was special as an academic because she also understood the need for maintaining positive relations with the myriad of stakeholders beyond students and faculty that could impact an academic institution, from state legislators to the Board of Regents, alumni, the media and potential donors among others.
“She made a hard job look easy as her successors no doubt have discovered,” he said.
Family lifeFor David and Michael Siegel, their mother’s many achievements outside the home were only rivaled by how wonderful she was as a parent.
“Where to begin?” David Siegel told the MDJ on Wednesday. “It was a lifetime of impressions and great memories. I’ve been thinking about her optimism, her positive outlook on everything, there was not a cynical bone in her body that we could ever really discern. I have come to respect that more and more, somehow she was always able to project that sense of optimism.”
“She was always extremely family oriented,” Michael Siegel said. “We thought pretty highly of her. She grew up in a very strong coal mining family in Kentucky and there was just something about the mountains in a fiber running through her family. Her wish was to be buried at her family plot in Kentucky and so she’ll return to her roots, so to speak.”
Both sons remember well the animated conversations around the breakfast table at their family home in Marietta that lasted for hours, sometimes until lunch.
Their father, Dr. Joel H. Siegel, an associate magistrate court judge for the city of Kennesaw and professor of English at Piedmont College, would offer witty remarks that their mother frantically scrambled to write down, the sons said.
“It was literally like a salon all the time,” Michael Siegel said. “People coming and going always, Christmas parties where she would invite families, we always knew there was going to be rich conversation.”
Siegel loved to travel and did so frequently, her sons said, adding she never met a stranger that didn’t soon become a friend.
“She just had that quality of making everyone feel special,” David Siegel said. “She always said that the person sitting next to you might end up being a lifelong family friend but you wouldn’t know it unless you talked to them.”
The brothers said they are proud of their mother’s career and impact on the community, and are planning a public memorial service in Marietta, likely with some involvement from KSU, after a private burial in Kentucky.
“She really took seriously that sort of civic duty and public service to promote the university,” David Siegel said.
“Just the sheer volume of what she could accomplish and what she had a passion for was legendary,” Michael Siegel added. “A very, very special person. I think that’s why people just wanted to be around her, that’s that kind of magnetism, unbridled, unshakable optimism. She could be speaking to 1,000 people and every person would feel like they had a connection to her, it just emanated from her.”
The brothers said their parents were a “true partnership” and enjoyed 53 years of marriage, having met in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1964 when she was in her first year of a post doctorate and he was pursuing a PhD.
Joel Siegel died in February 2019 at 89.
Career highlightsPrior to her arrival at KSU in September 1981, Siegel was the first female academic dean at Western Carolina University in the School of Education and Psychology from 1976 to 1981. From 1971 to 1976 she was the first female dean of Academic Affairs for Continuing Education at the University of Florida, where she had been a member of the faculty since 1967. In 1969, the university named her Distinguished Teacher of the Year.
Early during her tenure at KSU the college started receiving recognition, named in 1986 as “One of 20 Colleges on the Move” by George Mason University, and as a “rising star” in 1991 by U.S. News and World Report, which named it No. 1 in the South.
“When I look at my odyssey, I’ve been blessed by being a woman in the right place, perhaps at the right time,” Siegel told the MDJ in 2006.
She was just the second president of KSU, which now also boasts the Dr. Betty L. Siegel Student Recreation and Activities Center in her name.
“Siegel wanted the student experience at Kennesaw State to be more than just a collection of courses,” the university said in its news release Wednesday. “She wanted sports teams, on-campus housing and all the hallmarks of a classic American university experience. She once remarked that she wanted Kennesaw State to be a ‘university that matters, not just for what we teach, but how we teach people to live the good life, which is a life of service.’”
Siegel lectured at over 120 colleges and universities around the world and was once described by former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, of east Cobb, as the best public speaker he knew.
“Betty Siegel, with her infectious smile and enthusiasm, was the spark that laid the foundation for a brighter future for so many students,” Isakson said Wednesday. “Her lasting legacy of achievement is defined by her unrelenting love for KSU and Cobb County that helped shape our world for the better.”
Colorful characterThose who knew Siegel as KSU’s president will fondly recall her daily hours-long breakfasts at Waffle House across the street from the university, as well as her large, red glasses.
Siegel often said her country roots were what drove her to Waffle House for coffee and poached eggs every morning, reminiscing about her mother cooking on an old wood stove.
Her morning routine at Waffle House prior to heading to work involved reading at least three newspapers and having what became known as Waffle House moments, where her best thinking would lead to dozens of notes handwritten on napkins.
The Frey Road Waffle House staff loved Siegel so much they dedicated a booth in her name and gave her the Golden Waffle Award, which included free breakfast for a year. To them she was “Ms. Betty” and her husband was simply “Mr. Betty.”
Leigh Colburn, former principal of Marietta High School, took to social media Wednesday to share her thoughts about the KSU icon.
“Dr. Betty had a direct and measurable impact on my life and my career,” Colburn said. “I met her as a child, worked in her office as a student intern, and she was a mentor and supporter throughout my career. I will always cherish the impact she had on me and the Cobb community.”
Colburn called Siegel a “champion in the world of advocacy, ethical and relational leadership, and education.”
“She was a powerful force for positive change, a lady, and as she described herself a ‘minister of education,’” Colburn said. “This world is a better place because of her love of education and her love of people. Her life should serve as an inspiration to others.”
Retirement and Siegel’s legacy
Upon Siegel’s retirement in 2006, then-Sen. Isakson delivered a speech on the Senate floor, celebrating her contributions to the children of Georgia and to higher education as well as “the ceiling she broke for women in academics.”
Siegel became president emeritus and founded the Endowed Chair of the Siegel Institute of Leadership, Ethics and Character, an institution she helped start that was named in her honor in 2006 during her Silver Salute awards ceremony. Siegel also launched a nonprofit foundation for global ethical leadership and served as an adviser and consultant in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.
In late 2017, Betty and Joel Siegel spoke with the MDJ, at that point celebrating 52 years of marriage. It was a few months shy of her 87th birthday and she had been experiencing significant dementia for almost a year.
“Once asked how she would write her own epitaph, Siegel replied, ‘I would like to be known as a minister for education,’” KSU’s news release stated.