It is impossible to measure the impact of Dr. Betty L. Siegel on Cobb County and Georgia as well as many other places throughout this country and around the world. This visionary in education — and life — led Kennesaw State University from small college status to the third largest university in the state and positively influenced the lives of countless people.
Trailblazer, dynamo and eternal optimist are some of the terms that defined this exceptional educator who died Tuesday at 89. Taking the helm of what is now KSU in 1981, she became the first female president and served for 25 years, setting the record of the longest-serving female president of a state university in the United States. During her tenure, what was then Kennesaw College grew from an enrollment of 3,500 and no master’s programs to 18,000 students and 55 undergraduate and graduate degree offerings. KSU’s enrollment has now reached 38,000.
Education was Betty Siegel’s passion from an early age in Cumberland, Kentucky, her birthplace. She was valedictorian of her eighth grade and high school classes, the first in her family to graduate from college, earning her undergraduate degree from Wake Forest, followed by a master’s from the University of North Carolina, a Ph.D. in education from Florida State University and post-doctoral studies at Indiana University.
Breaking glass ceilings was her forte. She was the first female dean of Academic Affairs for Continuing Education at the University of Florida from 1971 to 1976, having been a faculty member since 1967. She became the first female academic dean at Western Carolina University in the School of Education and Psychology from 1967 to 1981 before arriving at Kennesaw College as its first female president. A measure of her standing in educational circles was the demand for her lectures, presented at more than 120 colleges and universities around the world.
For Siegel, education was far more than academic studies. She once recalled that at Kennesaw State, the routine for students was “parking lot, classroom, parking lot.” She said, “I didn’t want our students to come and just have an in-class experience. I wanted them to have a total experience. I wanted them to have a life-changing experience.” Her determination led to Kennesaw State creating its first intercollegiate athletic teams in 1982, a year after she became president. There is now the Dr. Betty L. Siegel Student Recreation and Activities Center on campus. No doubt, the students came to realize that Dr. Siegel was cut from a unique mold with her trademark big, red-framed glasses, red business suits and an optimism that knew no bounds.
Her philosophy, she said, was to build 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.” She wanted the students “to have a life-changing experience.” This commitment led to her founding the Endowed Chair of the Siegel Institute of Leadership, Ethics and Character, named in her honor in 2006. She also formed a nonprofit foundation for global ethical leadership in addition to serving as an adviser and consultant to private, public and nonprofit organizations.
As for her success, she would cite a familiar quotation to credit others who supported her work: “Whenever you see a turtle on a post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.” She also said of her odyssey, “I’ve been blessed by being a woman in the right place, perhaps at the right time.” Others could see her down-to-earth, outgoing and optimistic graces at her daily breakfasts of coffee and poached eggs at the Frey Road Waffle House across the street from KSU. She would read at least three newspapers and in “Waffle House moments” jot down notes on napkins. So beloved was she by the staff that they dedicated a booth in her name and gave her the Golden Waffle Award with free breakfasts for a year. A son, Dr. Michael Siegel, said his mother “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.” Her other son, David Siegel, said his mother made everyone feel special. “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.” Her husband, Dr. Joel H. Siegel, died in February 2019, after 53 years of marriage. He was a former professor of English and linguistics at Piedmont College and associate magistrate court judge in Kennesaw.
Dr. Betty Siegel earned many honors and plaudits during her distinguished career. But for her epitaph, she once said: “I would like to be known as a minister for education.” And she was that, par excellence. But beyond that, her legacy is a life of great achievements, leaving this world a better place because of her life.