Cheers to Betsy Bennett, Tarheel of the Year

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As reported in the News & Observer on January 1, 2012:

Tar Heel of the Year: Betsy Bennett transforms state science museum

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RALEIGH —             

Betsy Bennett’s office, her mission control, is cool. Totally cool, as she likes to say.

On the fifth floor of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, Bennett’s glass walls overlook the “Terror of the South” exhibit, with its 40-foot Acrocanthosaurus, a 110-million-year-old fossil, and flying pterosaurs circling ominously above. In the distance, across the street, is another peril: the legislative building, a place Bennett has managed to tame.

Transforming the landscape nearby is the museum’s new wing and the Daily Planet, a three-story multimedia sphere that will bring a wondrous world of science to the people of North Carolina. It is scheduled to open in April.         

In two decades, Bennett has managed to bag dinosaurs, lure scientists, sell lawmakers and inspire captains of industry to build a museum that captures the imagination of 700,000 visitors each year.

And the petite museum director, with her blond bob and quick stride, has pulled it off with unbounded energy, solid team building and an infectious sense of adventure. The phrases “totally awesome!” and “absolutely fabulous!” pepper her conversations, but the word “no” doesn’t seem to be in her vocabulary.

Take 1997, when Bennett traveled to Sotheby’s in New York for a historic event: the auction of the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever uncovered.

Just days before, someone dialed Bennett and inquired: Are you going to bid on the dinosaur named Sue?

Bennett was in the late stages of planning a $71 million building for a century-old museum. Museum backers had been to the legislature a half-dozen times for funding, and Bennett still had to raise at least $4 million for exhibits.

Bidding on Sue, a fossil deemed a world treasure, seemed an outlandish idea. But somehow Bennett couldn’t dismiss it. She called Dale Russell, the internationally known paleontologist she recruited to North Carolina from Canada. What’s a T-rex worth? she asked.

No one knew, Russell said, because none had ever been auctioned.

“I made a few calls,” Bennett remembers. “And dadgum, people were excited about doing it.”

An anonymous donor was in, and Bennett corralled a small team of supporters to make the trip.

That day, the air at Sotheby’s was electric. Within seconds, bids climbed over $1 million. The Smithsonian dropped out. When bids topped $4 million, a nervous Russell sunk down in his chair.

“It’s all right, Dale, we have the money,” Bennett recalls whispering.

There were just a few bidders left and the others were hidden in small curtained rooms. When Bennett’s team raised the paddle at $5 million, the crowd cheered the North Carolina museum.

In the end, Sue went to the Field Museum in Chicago, which had a winning bid of $7.6 million and deep-pocket backing from McDonald’s and Disney.

But North Carolina was no loser. Bennett grabbed the museum world’s attention with a bid of $7.25 million, and she would eventually fetch a dinosaur that was older, rarer and cheaper.

Success? Don’t stop

That expedition showed the moxie of Bennett, who has led North Carolina’s natural science museum to major expansion, record attendance and national recognition.

A former teacher and school board member with a Ph.D. in science education, Bennett, 68, has serious credentials and the exuberance of a schoolgirl. She can recruit top scientists and bend the ear of the governor. She has also been known to drop to one knee at the longleaf pine exhibit and wipe fingerprints off the glass with the hem of her skirt.

When Bennett arrived in 1990, the museum needed new life. Despite a long heritage and a vast collection, it was tucked in a state agriculture building – cramped, dark and perhaps best known for a python named George. It was a place that delighted schoolchildren, but didn’t exactly have a wow factor.

A star fossil would bring the wow.

Two months after the auction in New York, Bennett’s anonymous donor paid $3 million for the Acrocanthosaurus, a dinosaur more suited to the North Carolina museum because it once roamed the Southeast. The Acro with the menacing skull would become the museum’s icon.

At the 24-hour opening in 2000, Bennett stood on the balcony, where she could see a line of people wrapped around the Capitol, waiting to get inside the museum. At 2 a.m. It’s one of her favorite moments.

Since then, 7.7 million visitors have walked through the doors. The building, with its whale skeletons, arthropod zoo and prehistoric North Carolina exhibits, was an undisputed hit. It is the state’s most-visited museum and the top field trip destination. It appeared on a list of top 10 natural history centers in North America.

Most anyone else would have been content to sit back and enjoy the success. But Bennett instead followed the credo of the museum’s pioneer, H.H. Brimley, who, along with his brother, began to collect zoological specimens in North Carolina in the late 1800s. Brimley once wrote: “A finished museum is a dead museum.”

‘She can see it’

In early November, Bennett was about to be late for her umpteenth hardhat tour. She grabbed a helmet, threw a reflective vest over her size 6 business suit and slipped on a pair of black boots.

Bennett darted through traffic and construction barricades outside the $56 million Nature Research Center. She charged up the stairs, pointing out key sites along the way: a cafe where eight TV monitors will show science news, not ACC basketball; a weather station; glass labs where researchers will work in biodiversity, genomics, astronomy, paleontology; and citizen labs where people can try their hand at experiments.

Dominating the structure is the Daily Planet, a marvel of multimedia. Bennett secured a $4 million donation from the State Employees Credit Union members for the sphere.

In presentation after presentation, Bennett sells donors on the project. If the current museum shows audiences what we know about North Carolina’s natural wonders, she says, the new wing will explain how we know it. She makes clear that there is nothing like the Daily Planet. Anywhere.

Scientists here will communicate with researchers around the world in global town halls or joint projects. But the best part, Bennett says, is this: Through high-speed networks, the Daily Planet will connect to every school in North Carolina. So schoolchildren can get a quality science experience from the museum without climbing aboard a yellow bus to Raleigh.

Bennett explains by conjuring up a conversation between a kid in a classroom and a scientist in a submersible: “If the students are looking at these images, and they say, ‘Well, what’s that?’ ‘Well, that’s a squat lobster. It lives 2,000 feet below the ocean’s surface and it lives in these deepwater corals that we’re studying. Come along on the research trip with us.’ “

Or, the Daily Planet may broadcast open heart surgery, a prospect that unsettles the tour goers but jazzes Bennett. “Totally awesome!” she exclaims.

Bennett is the only person who could plan, fund and build a major museum and then turn around and do it again 12 years later, says Ann Smith, former leader of the Friends of the Museum board.

“Betsy has vision, creative vision,” Smith says. “Betsy is on the mountaintop looking out. She can see it when others cannot. She can dream it, and she has the ability to paint a clear picture of what she envisions and the gift to inspire others that it is possible.”

In 2001, a year after the current museum opened, Bennett sought out civic and corporate leaders to think about the future. The first concept was a small expansion focusing on dinosaur research. Big scrolls were rolled out on the museum’s conference table, where Bennett’s brain trust scribbled ideas.

A plan emerged for the Nature Research Center, part of a bigger public-private venture that would be called Green Square – an environmentally sustainable development that included buildings for the State Employees Credit Union and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The complex deal required private fundraising, state appropriations and money from local meal and hotel taxes. Bennett had to seek approval for a pedestrian skyway, which wasn’t allowed by the city of Raleigh.

“I’m not too confident many other people could have made that happen,” says Smedes York, a former mayor of Raleigh, who chaired the strategy group.

Joining forces and forming partnerships are trademarks of Bennett’s management style. A glass skyway spanning Salisbury Street has been named the Betsy M. Bennett Bridge to Discovery.

At a surprise dedication in January, former Gov. Jim Hunt called her “a force of nature.”

Nature near the city

On a warm fall afternoon, Bennett visits Prairie Ridge, the museum’s 45-acre ecostation in west Raleigh, about five miles from downtown. You can hear traffic in the distance, but Prairie Ridge, with its tall grasses blowing in the breeze, is serene. Every now and then, a critter rustles in the brush.

Bennett hikes past a small garden, to the pond at the far end of the property. She comes to a long, narrow wooden structure, a bird blind that was her idea. She slides open a heavy door and goes inside, where she sits and aims her binoculars toward the water.

She’s looking for the mergansers, ducks with unusual crests of feathers, but there’s not much activity.

The day before had been particularly fruitful. On a kayak outing at Jordan Lake with her husband, Walter, the couple spotted two bald eagles – one mature, one immature – two red-tailed hawks, cormorants and great blue herons.

“It was just amazing,” she says. “The last time we were out kayaking there, we saw eight eagles. Eight. They have come back there.”

Prairie Ridge, which opened in 2004, is a place where school groups can explore nature. An outdoor screened classroom was constructed with recycled lumber. Nearby, the museum plans a canopy walk over the trees and an arboretum with every kind of tree from North Carolina. The Smoky Mountains, Bennett says, has more species than all of Europe.

Bennett gestures to a spot where she plans an indoor classroom and a rustic residential facility to sleep 40. The dorm would offer far-flung schools an opportunity to take an overnight field trip to Raleigh, spending a day at the museum and a day at Prairie Ridge. She’s trying to raise $2 million to build it, even as she still seeks the final $6 million in donations for the research center downtown.

‘A lot of range’

Bennett drinks in nature.

A prolific birdwatcher and hiker, she jogs every morning with her dogs, Jake and Montana, on 11 acres behind her home near Chapel Hill. She and her husband, a retired judge and law professor who now writes fiction, continue a family tradition of summer trips out west with their children, Purcie and Will, now grown.

Two years ago, the family journeyed to the Canadian Arctic, where they paddled on the Firth River in the midnight sun.

Purcie Bennett says her mother was always “behind a pair of binoculars chasing a bird around a swamp. She’s insatiable about it. She knows what their calls are, she knows what they look like, what their names are, what their genus is. It’s crazy.”

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Betsy McSpadden grew up in a house that backed up to a park, now the city’s zoo. She, her sister Alice and her brother Jack played in the woods all the time, damming creeks, climbing treehouses, building forts.

In summer, the McSpadden children would glide in an old canoe on the Little River, near their grandmother’s place in the mountains.

Bennett’s father was an insurance executive. Her mother took the children on walkabouts to look for arrowheads or butterflies. She later became an artist, painting and photographing wildlife. Some of her work hangs on the Bennetts’ walls in Chapel Hill.

That love of nature was passed down to the Bennett children, who both relocated from east coast urban areas to Bozeman, Mont. Purcie started an environmental law firm and Will runs a river rafting company. Betsy and Walter Bennett bought a vacation home in Bozeman, where they strap on snowshoes or go fly fishing.

“She catches fish,” Will Bennett says of his mother, “but she feels bad for them and prefers to have them flip off the line before she gets them in the boat.”

Closer to home, she embarks on excursions with a group of three friends who have taken to calling themselves “Women Who Run with Ducks.” A favorite spot is the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern North Carolina.

Beth Lane, one of the women, remembers a trip to Alaska where Bennett and another friend spent 20 minutes or more, with field guides in hand, trying to identify a bird.

“She’s interested in building a partnership that transforms an entire city block and working through all the politics of that,” Lane says. “She’s also interested in some little bird flitting around in a bush. …That’s a person with a lot of range.”

Politics in Charlotte

Bennett’s skills developed on a natural path, a trail that meandered through science, education and politics.

She left Alabama for a private women’s college, Hollins, in Roanoke, Va., where she immersed herself in science and math courses. The only physics major at Hollins, she built a laser her senior year. She also enjoyed the social life in nearby Lexington, where she dated her future husband at then-all male Washington and Lee University.

After college, she taught in public schools in Virginia and North Carolina – in Durham and finally in Charlotte, where the family settled for Walter Bennett’s law practice.

In the early ’70s, the school system in Charlotte-Mecklenburg was in turmoil following the Swann Supreme Court case that ushered in busing for integration. The busing plans angered many parents, and the school board was unsuccessful at devising a strategy that worked.

Bennett and another Charlotte parent helped form the Citizens’ Advisory Group, and set about drawing their own pupil assignment plan. The school board resisted, but a federal judge put the duty in the hands of the citizen group. After meetings characterized by tense discussions, the group was able to reach consensus on a plan that was accepted by the court and implemented.

The effort was so successful that Bennett was recruited to run for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. She won, and would serve six years.

It was also a turning point. Because Bennett was on the school board, she couldn’t be a classroom teacher any longer. She began to develop political skills, which would serve her well in Raleigh.

“I learned that nine people could make a decision better than one person,” she said. “There were conservatives, there were liberals. We were all interested in good education.”

She also started a new career at Discovery Place, the science museum in Charlotte, where she worked as an educator and grant writer. With a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, she wrote an act about Madame Curie, the physicist and chemist who won two Nobel Prizes. Her plan was to hire an actress to play Curie, but Bennett herself ended up in the role.

“Walter said, ‘Now Betsy, don’t fake a French accent,’ ” Bennett recalls in her Alabama drawl. “You won’t pull it off.”

She did pull off the science, demonstrating a cloud chamber and describing Curie’s big vat of heated chemicals and her method of isolating radium. She wore a black dress with a lace collar, and a brooch that her daughter picked up at a yard sale for 50 cents.

“I would be Madame Curie in the morning and then raise money in the afternoon,” she said. “It’s fun working in a science museum.”

Pouring over obstacles

Bennett was hired to lead the state museum in 1990 by then-Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham. She seemed to have the skills to turn the place around.

“I found an institution with a lot of depth,” Bennett says. “All they needed was the great exhibits and the great presence. The museum was tired and old and it needed a new face.”

The museum was moved to the state’s environment department, where a new building moved up the priority list. But a previous schematic was shelved. The concept didn’t make sense for North Carolina.

“I said, ‘Excuse me, this is the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, would someone explain to me why we are planning an African water hole?’ ” Bennett recalls.

With Bennett at the helm, the new museum would showcase North Carolina, with its rich biodiversity and the convergence of migratory species from the North and South. Soon the staff was having heated debates about how to fit it all in, from the spotted salamander to the native azalea.

She brought in the country’s best museum architects and exhibit designers. She lured a top-notch scientist with a joint appointment at N.C. State University – a successful venture that would later be expanded to other UNC campuses when six scientists were hired for the Nature Research Center.

One of her early recruits was Roy Campbell, an exhibit director who had worked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

At the time, Campbell had another job offer. He looked at North Carolina’s old museum, which he described as happy but humble, very humble.

“There wasn’t much to it, but there was Betsy Bennett,” he says. “I could tell she was somebody unusual.”

Along the way, Bennett got a strong run of state appropriations. She also fought perennial attempts by lawmakers to charge for admission at the museum. Keeping it free, she argued, meant everyone could benefit.

Bennett and her husband are longtime givers to Democrats, but she has not alienated Republicans. It’s rare, if not impossible, to encounter someone who doesn’t like her.

Last year, when the GOP-led legislature faced a mammoth budget shortfall, a few members asked whether they should delay the Nature Research Center. The resounding answer was no, said Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican.

“We may not be able to put a physics teacher in 100 counties in every school,” he says, but “through the interactive nature of the nature center, we can take education straight to that classroom.”

While the main museum lost five positions last year, the legislature funded 47 new jobs for the new wing.

“She’s so dogged and so determined,” Campbell says. “We never had to back down on the vision. She just works that much harder. She’s like water. She just pours over obstacles.”

Her argument resonates: The museum is an investment in North Carolina, where science and technology will drive the future economy.

With that message, Bennett continues to push toward opening the Nature Research Center, the newest gem in downtown Raleigh. And there are other jewels to come, she insists.

No one is able to tell Betsy Bennett no.         

       Stancill: 919-829-4559      

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