I was informed this morning about the passing of Dr. Elizabeth Rice Allgeier, a lifelong mentor and friend. Betsy was a huge influence in my life and I wanted to honor the passing of a remarkable, one-of-a-kind, groundbreaking woman by sharing a few memories and how she changed my life.
I met Betsy in 1982 at Bowling Green State University when she selected me and a couple of other juniors to be undergraduate assistants. Unlike the experiences of many of our peers, Betsy’s assistants got to do real, substantive work. I was given the responsibility of providing editing assistance for several chapters of the first edition of a textbook that Betsy and her husband Rick were completing. This book, Sexual Interactions, became one of the most successful textbooks in the field of social psychology with several updates published over many years. Another assistant was given the responsibility of writing the study guide to accompany the text. This guide was eventually published and Betsy insisted the undergraduate student be given the singular author credit on the book cover (an honor that was unheard of at the time).
Betsy was that kind of mentor. Selfless and supportive. She wanted her students to achieve at the highest levels. She would routinely direct the considerable bright light that she generated whenever she walked into a room on us, young and unproven undergrads. I was a 20-year-old kid from rural Georgia with very little world experience when Betsy saw something in me that led her to choose me to be one of her assistants.
Meeting Dr. Masters
In 1983, she took me and five of her undergrad and grad assistants to Chicago to attend the annual Quad-S conferences in Chicago. I should mention here that Quad-S stands for the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex. During that eye-opening conference, she introduced her students to several renowned researchers and sexologists. She had us join her for a dinner with William Masters and Virginia Johnson (yes, the same Masters & Johnson now depicted in the Showtime hit, Masters of Sex). By the luck of the draw, I was placed next to Betsy at the table and immediately across from William Masters. I will tell you that in real life, Dr. Masters looked or acted nothing like the actor, William Sheen, who now plays him on television. He was bald as a cue ball and had an intense gaze that he rarely diverted. He wasn’t a big believer in blinking either.
Betsy noticed my obvious discomfort trying to maintain a conversation with Dr. Masters. Frankly, I didn’t have much in life experience that I could share and I didn’t have many ideas that would engage or interest him. Most troubling was that he wouldn’t divert his gaze. Ever. He had focused it like a bright hot laser right on the middle of my forehead for most of the dinner. At some point, Betsy had noticed the freakishly long staring competition I was having (and clearly losing) with Dr. Masters. I remember that she interrupted her lively conversation with Dr. Beverly Whipple, a researcher who had received some recent fame and acclaim for discovering and writing about the G-Spot, and she turned to face me. In a conspiratorial tone, she whispered a suggestion:
“If Dr. Masters keeps staring at you like this, I suggest that you demonstrate a submissive behavior that chimps do when they want to calm down the alpha in the group.”
She then moved closer to face me square on (and so Dr. Masters could not see directly what she was doing). She opened her mouth, formed an “O” shape, opened her eyes real wide, and then began to open and shut her mouth several times like a fish gasping for air. I can still picture her face and the cork popping sound she made each time her lips met and all of this within three feet of Dr. Masters. I felt valued and special when she then grabbed my arm as we shared an irreverent laugh. I was inconsequential to everyone at that table except for Betsy. She knew I was uncomfortable and made it her responsibility to make sure that I didn’t continue to feel that way. That was who she was.
I remember watching Betsy be a cool and loving mom to her biological children and the many honorary children who were her students. She and Rick opened the doors to their home to us and always treated us as their own. I remember meeting her daughters on several occasions–three amazing women she was raising in her own mold—adventurous, independent, free-spirited, and smart as whips. She would bring her young son with her to her wildly popular Human Sexuality Class at Bowling Green and sit him in the first row of an arena-style classroom full of hundreds of students. When her son was about 4 or 5, she brought him to the first class of the semester–a class that she famously began with a film of animals of various species copulating. It was meant to be a way to help remove some of the students’ inhibitions around the topic of sex but most students would slink under their chairs in embarrassment or begin to giggle uncontrollably.
During this first class of the semester, her son raised his hand to comment. Betsy called on him with the same voice that she used when acknowledging any other student in the room–commanding and assured. In his sweet young voice, he began to describe with rich detail and anatomical precision what he saw the animals doing and why they were doing it. The audience erupted in laughter and amazement, mostly because they knew the average person in class would be unable to use anywhere near the correct terms this precocious four or five-year-old was using so effortlessly to describe what he were seeing. When he was done (and, as I recall, he went on for quite a while), she encouraged him, reinforced that his observations were correct, and thanked him for contributing to the conversation. She didn’t rush him or cut him off. A small young boy was already getting to experience the magic that his mother could create just by directing her attention to him and treating him as if you had something important to share. I got to experience that feeling for the first time in my life when I met Betsy and I am thankful to say I felt it many times during our relationship.
The Bar Raiser
Sadly, after all the mentoring and support Betsy had given me during my time as an undergraduate, I disappointed her near the end of my tenure as her assistant. A few months before graduation, she acted on my behalf to get me accepted into a well-respected graduate program in psychology and she helped to negotiate a healthy scholarship and a graduate assistantship because I didn’t have the financial resources to cover the costs on my own. She knew about my tough family situation back home and I think she just wanted me to have options that would keep me from having to return there after graduation. Out of fear or indecisiveness, I missed several requirements to put the scholarship in motion–basically sabotaging the opportunity. She was furious and it was the first time I can remember her taking anything other than an encouraging tone with me. She knew what I was getting ready to blow it even though I didn’t have the foresight to see it myself. She didn’t speak to me for two weeks after I told her I would not be accepting the offer. Or more to the point, I had not followed up on the offer in time for it to be honored. I realized that she wasn’t angry because she had worked hard to negotiate a great opportunity for me that I had squandered. She was disappointed and worried that I would get stuck. She wanted more for me.
The Door Opener
About two weeks before graduation, she ended the silent treatment and called me over to her house to have dinner with her and her husband, Rick. During the dinner, Rick offered me a job at the local mental health center where he served as clinical director. It was a job as the assistant director of a transitional living facility for mentally ill adults–a position for which I didn’t have the training or the qualifications. As was their way, they both conveyed their unqualified confidence that I would be successful in the job and that I would learn what I needed to learn quickly. Betsy’s handprint was all over this deal. It was her way of finding another solution when the first one didn’t work. If you knew her at all, you knew she had difficulty conceding defeat. She also didn’t give up easily on people she cared about. She had decided that she was not going to have me go back home and if she couldn’t get me to go to grad school, she would get me a job. And this wasn’t the last time that the endorsement of two of the most influential psychologists of the day helped to open doors for me.
I took that door in May of 1984, one day after I graduated. That door kept me from having to go back to a difficult and unhealthy home situation because I couldn’t afford to live on my own. That door led to a fulfilling 20-year career in social services where I got to help countless troubled youth. That door led to several jobs of increasing responsibility that culminated with a promotion to Senior Vice President for one of the largest child caring organizations in the country. She continued to serve as a reference for me for most every job I applied for until I became a full-time organizational development consultant in 2000. It was in 2010 that we last spoke at length. I called her to let her know that, at long last, I had decided to go back and complete my Ph.D. Even though it took me 25 years to come to the conclusion that she had planned for me while still an undergraduate student, I could tell she was proud of me. I completed that degree last year and her name is front and center in the acknowledgements page of my dissertation.
The Force of Nature
If we are fortunate in our lives, we get to cross paths with someone like Betsy Allgeier. She conformed to no one’s expectations. She did things her way. She took several adventures each year while she was in good health to do so. She was the first adult I ever got drunk with and she took me and a handful of students to our first drag show in Toledo after our graduation. She liked exposing us to new things and loved being the tour guide for something we had never done or seen before. She was bawdy, irreverent, complicated, caring, and colorful. I asked her once what would she have been if she had not become a world-renowned researcher and social psychologist. She told me she always saw herself as a nightclub (cabaret) singer with too much makeup and just the right amount of boa feathers. I’d like to think of her like that now. Singing a catchy tune in a smoke filled joint somewhere. If you find yourself on the other side and get to hear her sing, be sure you sit as close to her as possible. The energy that radiates from her could change your life.
Thank you, Betsy, for being my mentor and friend and for saving me at a time when I couldn’t save myself. I will miss you.