Paying tribute to Betty Foy Sanders and a life well-lived

Published 9:08 am Monday, June 13, 2022

She was Georgia’s Grand Dame. Our state’s First Lady. A prolific artist. A philanthropist and my muse. She was Betty Foy Sanders, who died on May 29th at the age of 95 after a life well-lived.

I first came to her attention for my unabashed admiration for her husband, former Gov. Carl Sanders. It was through his leadership that Georgia was spared a lot of the racial strife that engulfed our neighboring states in the late ‘60s.

Gov. Sanders kept the lid on much of the unrest of that period and helped make Atlanta the capitol of the New South. He didn’t stand in the schoolhouse door. It was not necessary for the federal government to bring in the National Guard to restore order. “I was elected to obey the law,” he told me, “and I did.”

His reward was a shameless race-baiting campaign by Jimmy Carter in the 1970 governor’s race. Carter’s campaign criticized Sanders for paying tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. (Gov. Sanders and Atty. Gen. Arthur Bolton were the only two state officials to attend King’s funeral) and his staff distributed photographs at KKK rallies of Sanders arm-in-arm with two Black basketball players. At the time, Sanders was part-owner of the Atlanta Hawks.

While Gov. Sanders was bemused at the opportunistic political U-turn Jimmy Carter made after his election, (He later said of Carter, “He is not proud of that election, and he shouldn’t be,”) Betty Sanders was not so forgiving. Neither was I. Thus, a common bound developed between us.

She was an avid reader of this space. I would often get calls from the governor to report that Ms. Sanders had enjoyed a particular column of mine. Once when a column didn’t run because a thin-skinned college president prevailed on a publisher not to print my criticism of him, Gov. Sanders called me looking for the publisher’s telephone number. Betty was upset, he said, and wanted him to personally convey her displeasure at the absence of my column that week. I suggested we not do that. Publishers can be thin-skinned, too, and future columns might never see the light of day. Fortunately, my plea prevailed but I appreciated her loyalty and our friendship grew.

Long before we came to know each other personally, I had admired Betty Sanders as a preeminent artist. She referred to herself as “the paintingest first lady Georgia has ever seen.”

A graduate of the University of Georgia’s School of Art, Ms. Sanders was not only an artist of first rank, she was a devoted promoter of art. It was at her suggestion that Gov. Sanders established the Georgia Council for the Arts. She served seven years on the arts council board. “It was the largest dose of culture this state had ever seen from one governor,” she said. “It opened the door to towns, counties and schools to bring art, the symphony and ballet into their areas,”

Over the years, she donated her artwork to schools and museums across the state. A collection created by fellow Georgia artists is housed in her hometown of Statesboro at Georgia Southern University, where the fine arts department bears her name.

Ms. Sanders also took a personal interest in my efforts as a nascent artist. She enjoyed discussing our mutual painting projects which was akin to Colin Powell discussing military strategy with Beetle Bailey. While I can turn out a reasonably adequate oil painting on occasion, Betty Sanders was constantly reinventing herself as an artist and expanding the boundaries of art. Her repertoire ranged from portraits to landscapes to still life to paintings accented with rocks and minerals such as amethyst, shell and quartz. Most artists aren’t that brave or that talented.

Predictably, time catches up with us all and the last few years found Betty Sanders confined to a wheelchair. But even that didn’t stop her from continuing to find new avenues of art. When painting became too difficult, she managed to produce a set of doodles that were extraordinarily creative.

In one of our last conversations, she told me she was tired and ready to join her beloved husband at their final resting place in Augusta. Her wish has now been granted. While Betty Foy Sanders had an enduring and positive impact on our state, she still found time to inspire me to do my best, whether it be putting words on paper or oil on canvas. She was truly Georgia’s First Lady and I am thankful to have known her.