For Betty Schoenbaum and Carol Bowman, there’s no better foundation for friendship than simply caring about another person.
One hundred years ago this month, a girl named Betty Frank was born in Dayton, Ohio. She loved to dance and sing. Her parents provided well for her, but she knew everyone was not so lucky.
On Fridays, she watched her grandmother, who was very poor, open up her kitchen to share dinner with anyone in need. She saw her deposit coins in three little banks perched on her stove, money her grandmother used to help other people.
That spirit of generosity infused Betty her whole life, and it was a quality she shared with Alex Schoenbaum ’39. They met as students at Ohio State, where Alex studied marketing and was a star tackle on the football team. They married in 1940, and Betty remembers facing their first philanthropic challenge that year when Alex pledged $100 to the United Jewish Appeal.
“We didn’t have means,” Betty says. “We lived in a $40-a-month efficiency at Hudson and High. My husband sold used cars and only made $40 a week. When September came, and it was time to pay the pledge, we really scrabbled to get it.”
They did come up with the money, and later they were able to do much more. Alex went on to found the highly successful Shoney’s restaurant chain. The couple donated much of their wealth to worthy causes and institutions, including one of their favorites: The Ohio State University. After Alex died in 1996, Betty continued the legacy.
She is particularly proud of the scholarships she has funded through Ohio State’s Critical Difference for Women program, started in 1986 to help women who have had to interrupt their education because of family responsibilities or financial restraints. The grants help women get back to school to earn degrees.
Betty admires all of her scholarship recipients, but one stands out in a very special way. “Of all my students who have graduated from Ohio State,” she says, “Carol Bowman is my shining star.”
Carol was a church custodian and mother of six when she asked her boss for a raise. He refused, saying, “Face it, Carol, what else can a mother of six children do besides be a custodian?” Carol showed him. She enrolled at Ohio State Marion and continued to work full-time. But she and her husband could barely make ends meet. It was a Critical Difference for Women scholarship that allowed her to continue her studies.
Now director of science lab facilities at Ohio State’s Marion campus, where she has worked for 19 years, Bowman oversees labs in the $15.5 million Science and Engineering Building that opened this fall. She has earned associate’s and bachelor’s degrees from the university, and she’s taken all of the course work toward a master’s degree. Five of her children have graduated from college as well, and three have pursued advanced degrees.
Over the years, Betty and Carol kept in touch, corresponding and meeting up at Critical Difference for Women luncheons. In June, they had the opportunity to see one another face to face for the first time in 10 years, and we listened in on part of their conversation.
Carol: Tell me, Betty, why did you create scholarships to help women like me?
Betty: A lot of women (not you, thank God) had husbands who walked out on them and had no possibility of going to college and finishing their education. I thought that would be a good investment — better than the stock market. It gives you such joy seeing a person who can provide for her family, grow herself and inspire her children.
Carol: When you invest in people, you don’t have to worry about the stock market crashing and losing all your money. It’s a very long investment. Tell me, what are the biggest obstacles you have faced in your life?
Betty: Believe it or not, except for one instance, my life has seen ineffable joy. Ineffable in the dictionary is “beyond description.” My husband and I started out with nothing, and he built a big business, Shoney’s, and I had money when he passed away that I could give. Most of it has gone for early childhood education, because I believe that if children get what they need in the first five years of life, they can go on to college and be prepared for life.
Carol: That’s wonderful. What’s your favorite memory from when you were a student at Ohio State?
Betty: My favorite memory is standing at Mirror Lake. They called it “pitching woo” then. (That’s kissing.) I also loved the graduations; you never forget them. I’ve been back to many of them.
Carol: Did you graduate from Ohio State?
Betty: No, but I received an honorary degree in 2001.
Carol: What was your role when you and your husband built his business?
Betty: Mother, mother, mother. My husband’s mother never worked, and he didn’t want me to work, so I stayed home and took care of the four children. I had my last one at 48 and a half years old.
Carol: You took care of all the things for the family, so your husband could devote his time to the restaurants. That’s a wonderful — and sometimes unrecognized — contribution.
Betty: Now let me ask you a question. What about that man who hired you as a janitor? Does he know where you are now?
Carol: He does. He knows I work at Ohio State Marion as director of the science labs. And frankly, I think it’s great that he said I couldn’t expect to do anything other than work as a custodian. It gave me the incentive to do something different. Over the years, I’ve had many young mothers come in and say, “I have two kids, and I don’t think I can finish school,” and I say, “Let me tell you what you can do. The last two years of school, when I had to drive to Columbus, I never went to bed on Sunday night — for two years.” And they say, “Oh, my gosh.” I tell them, “Girls, you can do it. And it’s worth it when you do.”
Carol: I’ll be retiring in two years. What advice do you have for me?
Betty: Continue to be involved in the field you are in, and have a purpose in life. I know you have your family, and that’s a wonderful purpose, but you have to reach out to the underprivileged and help them. It’s a marvelous feeling.
Carol: I’m a Marion County parks commissioner, and we’re building a 12-mile hiking/biking trail on the west side of town. We’re paving the last two miles this year, and it’s really been rewarding to give kids a safe place to take their bikes and skateboards. What are you doing now, Betty?
Betty: I am writing a memoir, called The Joy of Giving is the Joy of Living. It’s a personal biography to hand down to my family. I have eight grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and 27 direct descendants.
Carol: One thing I’ve always treasured are your heart-to-heart hugs. Why is hugging so important to you?
Betty: If we have enough hugs around the world, we would show people how to love rather than how to hate. Just wrapping your arms around someone and hugging your heart to their heart. There is so much hate in the world, we must pass love around. Pass the hugs on to your children, to family, to friends, and ask them to pass them around. Maybe sometimes we could get it to go all around the world.
Lives of compassion
The generosity of Betty and Alex Schoenbaum has helped many scholarship students and advanced the work of Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business and College of Education and Human Ecology. The Schoenbaum Family Center in the Weinland Park neighborhood inspires future educators and provides early childhood education, programming and family engagement. Schoenbaum Hall serves students in Fisher College of Business.