BY BARBARA ELLIOTT
If you had to pick one individual to personify life in Lewisburg over the past century, you’d be hard pressed to find someone more fitting than Bettie Woodward. True, she left her hometown for some pretty heady adventures as a young woman in the 1950s and 60s. Also true, she has not quite yet hit the century mark. But in her 90-plus years she has not only witnessed the evolution of Lewisburg from the sleepy “school town” of her childhood to the vibrant community it is today, she also has played an active role in that transformation.
Bettie Sydenstricker Woodward is descended from two storied Greenbrier County families. She has DAR credentials on both sides of her family. Her great-great grandfather Phillip Sydenstricker fought in the American Revolution as a paid German mercenary and eventually settled in the Rich Creek area. Her great-great grandfather on her mother’s side, John Tuckwiller, also was a Revolutionary War veteran, and his descendants, including Bettie, have farmed and raised cattle in the beautiful Richlands area west of Lewisburg for generations. Other notable relations include her grandfather, John Sydenstricker, a former West Virginia Secretary of Labor who lost the governorship to William McCorkle, and her second cousin, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Pearl Sydenstricker Buck.
Bettie was born in the house that is now occupied by the Greenbrier County Board of Education and spent ten years at Montwell, the stately brick home on the hill above Lewisburg’s new Montwell Park. She remembers happy times spent with her “twin” brother, Bill McCorkle, who was born on the same day and lived across the street from her family. The two celebrated birthdays together until they were 10, when Bill decided to have a “stag” party.
Life changed dramatically when her father died and she and her mother moved in with some Tuckwiller relatives in the country. “I thought at first I was going to die,” she recalls. “I thought I would have no friends. It was during the war. There was gas rationing. We had to plan every drive. But we survived quite well. Aunt Mary set a wonderful table. I loved being in the country. I could ride horses with my cousins, touring the countryside. We would ride up to the top of Muddy Creek Mountain. My uncle said to watch the road because we might hit a still and get shot at. Cousin Margaret Tuckwiller threw great parties. There were scavenger hunts. During one, when one of the items was two hairs from a white horse’s tail, we had two light grey mares and they got run around the pasture a lot that night. You had to make up your own entertainment. Life was simple, but it full of wholesome things that I’m not sure exist in today’s world, unfortunately.”
In those days, Lewisburg was not where the commercial life of the county was centered. “It was a time when the western end of the county was a hub of activity, Bettie explains. “The Raine brothers were alive and Meadow River Lumber Company was active and there were coal mines producing in the western end. Lewisburg was puny. As a child we went to Ronceverte. We went to Mr. Hubbard’s grocery store. Burkholder and Green’s was there for shoes and men’s clothing. Edith Patton’s Dress Shop was there for the ladies. Ronceverte was a bustling city. With the demise of the rail system it slowed and kind of slipped away. I am glad there are people trying to rebuild it now.”
Despite its shortcomings as a mercantile center, Lewisburg was a great school town, she says. The schools were Greenbrier College, an all-girls school located on the campus where Carnegie Hall and the Greenbrier Valley Campus of New River Community Technical College are today, and Greenbrier Military School (GMS), a boy’s school located on the campus of today’s West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. Both were in their heyday when she was growing up.
Because the public high school was not the strongest at that time, everyone who could afford to do so sent their children to one of the Greenbriers, she recalls. Girls went to Lewisburg High School their first year and then transferred to Greenbrier College as sub-freshmen and stayed through the first two years of college. GMS started in grade school through one year post high school.
“Our girls were cheerleaders for GMS basketball and sometimes football. There were lots of glances and letters exchanged on Sunday mornings in the vestry of the Old Stone Church. Cadets sat upstairs, and the girls downstairs. There were no classes on Mondays. On Saturdays and Monday afternoons the front hallway was flooded with cadets. The dean, Miss “Mac” McClaskey had to warn every spring that the girls should ‘stay out of my bamboo’, a favorite spot where goodbyes were said. The girls were often older than the boys, but they still had fun together, Bettie remembers.
At the end of the school year there was a coronation of the Queen of the Greenbrier, a senior elected by members of the junior class. “I saw my very first coronation when I was four years old. I was pea green with envy that I didn’t get to be in the ceremony. I was crushed at age four,” she laughs.
In time, Bettie did make it to the coronation and was part of the ceremony for five years, always looking forward to the day when Mrs. Yarid brought up the dresses for the girls to wear. There were many other traditions, including the Greenbrier girls’ dance around the Maypole and the GMS cadets’ final ball at The Greenbrier featuring a big name band. Bettie’s “twin” Bill McCorkle emerged from his stag phase in time to take her to her first Greenbrier dance.
“It was a perfect night, and I had the perfect dress, and a perfect date with a perfect cadet. I think it was my first time of all at The Greenbrier. My mother wouldn’t let me go until I was 16. We went with another couple. Their parents were staying at The Greenbrier and picked us up. When I was coming up, we were very carefully herded from one activity to another.”
Later, when The Greenbrier became Ashford Hospital during World War II, the gray ladies took some of the town Greenbrier girls over to dance with the soldiers who were recuperating. “We felt we were doing something good that was sort of fun,” Bettie says. “Back in the days when I first went there everything was elegant and top class. Hopefully it has kept some of that.”
After five years at Greenbrier College, Bettie moved on to the University of North Carolina, where she spent only one year before transferring to West Virginia University. After some false starts and delays, she earned a degree in English with a minor in foreign languages. She then returned to Lewisburg, where a chance encounter with Dr. French Woodville Thompson, then president of Greenbrier College, set the course of her life for years to come. He asked her to come work for him, and thus she joined the college as secretary to the Dean, “Miss Mac” McClaskey.
Her adventuresome spirit developed even further during this time, and she took her first trip abroad in 1958 with three other young women. The foursome rented a Volkswagen in Hanover, German, and toured 14 countries. “We had a marvelous time,” Bettie remembers. “It was like Cornelia Otis Skinner’s book—our hearts were young and gay.”
After three years as Miss Mac’s secretary, Bettie concluded that she was “equipped to do nothing,” and resolved to pursue a master’s degree so that she could either get better secretarial work or teach. A friend was headed to Peabody College in Nashville as a business education major, so the two went together. Since she had no undergraduate courses in business education, it took five quarters to get her master’s degree.
By the time she had finished her master’s in 1955, Dr. John Montgomery had become the president of Greenbrier College, and along with Sue Sailor, had started a business education program. So she came home again and taught for several years before deciding to take her education to the next level, pursuing a terminal degree specialist in education because at that time few schools offered a doctorate in the field. Dr. Montgomery granted her a leave of absence for three quarters to return to Peabody for the degree, but the process took longer than she had anticipated.
“At first I said ‘all through in ‘62,’ then changed it to ‘wait for me in ‘63.’,” she laughs. When she finally completed the degree, she returned home once again and taught one year at Greenbrier College before being offered a teaching job at Indian River Junior College in Florida. After a year there, she received an offer to teach at Miami of Ohio. It meant an increase in salary, and she could become an assistant professor. She spent four years there and loved every minute of it.
She mostly taught girls in skill subjects like typewriting and shorthand. She had some boys in records management. “Now you can get a degree in that, notes. “It shows you how rapidly things can change. Computers have really changed things. There are still business education departments, but I don’t know what they teach. Change is the most constant aspect of life. It never stops.”
It was at Peabody that she meet Dr. Theodore “Ted” Woodward, the head of the Business Education Department. Before she went back to WV for her teaching job, they had pleasant dinner and kept in communication after she left. Although he was married when they first met, Dr. Woodward’s wife died in 1960, and after her death his relationship with Bettie developed into romance. Seven years after they first met, she was on her way to India to marry him.
Yes, India. In 1966, Dr. Woodward was invited to join a group of educators from different institutions who were going to India to train secondary level (high school) teachers. He was to be associated with a college in Mysore City. “He had written and asked ‘what would you say about going to India? I was always willing and ready to travel. He was 20 years older, but a very youthful 20 years older. I wouldn’t have missed being married to him for anything. We loved to travel.” Bettie says.
They were married in Delhi by a Presbyterian minister in a Methodist Church in an Anglican service. “We got married on July 5 because Ted said he refused to give up his independence on July 4,” she says with a laugh. “No members of our families were present, and we were sorry about that. My family was never too excited about anyone I was serious about, so it worked out quite well for us to be married far away from home.”
Ted spent two years in India, but six months was the longest time that Bettie was there at a stretch. It was quite an adventure for a genteel young Greenbrier girl.
“I don’t care who you are, everyone gets Delhi belly at some point. I drank some ‘safe for drinking’ water. Ted said ‘I wouldn’t if I were you.’ I listened to him after that. We had a suite of rooms at the Mysore Hotel. My first job of the day was to boil water for 40 minutes to kill not only amoebic dysentery, but also hepatitis. Luckily I had bacteriology in college. You had to brush your teeth with boiled water. You didn’t dare put anything in your mouth that wasn’t peeled or boiled. I would love to go back to India now. India had no middle class when we were there. It was either the very rich or very poor. Nothing in between. Now with technology they have developed a middle class,” she observes.
After the India sojourn, the couple returned to Nashville, where they lived until Ted’s retirement in 1975. Although Ted had grown up in Greensburg, Kentucky, it was his idea to retire to Glenwood, the farm Bettie had inherited through the Surbaugh/Sydenstricker side of her family. The beautiful brick house, which was built around 1845, is located in the rolling farm country west of Lewisburg. A lovingly restored and graciously appointed home today, it was a “veritable barn” when they couple took up residence, at least according to Ted.
The house had been lived in by tenants for about 50 years before the Woodwards arrived, and it was certainly the worse for wear. But it had great “bones,” and the couple soon discovered marvelous plaster below the seven layers of wallpaper in the living room. Bettie says there is inconclusive evidence suggesting that it was built by the legendary Greenbrier County craftsman John Dunn.
Once she returned, Bettie schooled herself in raising beef cattle on the farm, which had been leased by her cousin Bill Irons during her absence. With advice from her uncle, Frank Wilson, she raised a herd of roan reds and pure whites. After her beloved husband died in 1983, Bettie persevered on the farm, devoting herself to raising cattle and civic ventures.
One of the many passions Bettie has pursued after moving home was the creation of a local Farmland Protection Board. “I joined the American Farmland Trust just simply for their information back in the 80s. They projected at the present rate of loss of farmland we would lose the ability to feed ourselves by 2050,” she says There’s lots of land, but some of it you can’t raise a racket on, much less a crop. If we don’t take care of our farms we will lose our ability to feed ourselves. I love our land. It is the most important thing that we can possess, but we can’t really possess it. You are only a steward of it for a short time—your lifetime—and it should be better at the end of your tenure. That’s my philosophy.”
Although she was saddened that Greenbrier College closed in 1972, she understands the forces that led to its demise. “It was the 60s. Girls wanted to be in class with boys. They were rebellious. They didn’t want rules. It was tragic,” she recalls. “Greenbrier College had something that was very special. There was an esprit de corps that doesn’t exist today. There were good teachers who had a concern for students. They made sure girls knew how to act in social situations, to write invitations and thank-you notes. Today if you get a note from someone you can’t read it. Someone said they are not teaching cursive writing anymore, and I laugh and I think, oh if they have been it wasn’t very successful!”
Rather than dwelling on what has been lost, however, Bettie has devoted herself to celebrating the school’s rich history and preserving the campus buildings so they continue to form an educational and cultural hub in downtown Lewisburg.
She is one of many dedicated alumnae of Greenbrier College who remain connected through a newsletter and reunions. She wrote the following description about the origins of the reunions for the Greenbrier alumnae website.
“In the late summer of 1982, ten years after the closing of Greenbrier College and Greenbrier Military School, Jack Horton called to ask if our Lewisburg alumnae would be interested in joining the GMS group for a joint reunion. I thought we would, and we did. Thus began our present reunion activity. Christine McGuire, Sue Sailor, Elaine Burton Pugh, Jane Dunn Matheny and Dorothy Judson Ford-Caldwell were the local alumnae who agreed to join in this first reunion. We were responsible for the food. It was held on the second Saturday evening in October and we had prepared for a probable number of two hundred, four hundred actually attended! Needless to say the food was not enough; however, everyone seemed to have a good time in spite of this.
By the following year, the reunion had become a two-day event. On Friday night there was a beef barbeque at Glenwood Farm, and the cadets had one in the quadrangle at GMS. This time the food was bountiful. A business meeting of Greenbrier College alumnae was held in the auditorium of Carnegie Hall and it was decided they would hold their reunion every other year rather than annually as the cadets do.”
Not surprisingly, Bettie was also at the forefront of the effort to save Carnegie Hall in the early 1980s. The building had served as the arts building and gymnasium for Greenbrier College, and Bettie had fond memories of concerts by nationally known performers, theatrical productions in which the girls played both the men’s and women’s roles, and art displays in the studio on the third floor. Rather than let the building be demolished, she joined with others to incorporate Carnegie Hall as the nonprofit arts center that today attracts thousands of patrons for concerts, films, art exhibits, and classes each year.
Likewise, she was a leader in the movement to renovate Greenbrier Hall to serve as the classroom building for what was then the Greenbrier Community College Center of Bluefield State College. She served for many years on the board of the GCC Foundation. It pleases her that Greenbrier Hall and the adjacent activities building have now been returned to their original purpose, serving students of New River Community and Technical College, a multi-campus institution created by the legislature in 2003 by merging the community college components of Bluefield State and Glenville State Colleges.
Bettie became so involved in these and other community organizations, including the North House Museum, Greenbrier Valley Theatre, the Old Stone Presbyterian Church and PEO Chapter O, that it eventually occurred to her that she wasn’t doing anything except going to meetings. She finally decided to cut back, and these days she only remains active in the women of the church.
Although hers has been a life filled with adventure, education, and public service, she still has items on her bucket list. She would love to go back to college and study geology. She regrets that she never visited South America. She is still a voracious reader. “I’m still pretty well. I don’t have the energy level I once did, but the gray matter is still working pretty well, thank goodness,” she says. “You never stop learning.”