Heart for service
Throughout his military career and a second calling as a teacher, Walter Betley put others’ needs ahead of his own.
The long and decorated career of 95-year-old retired Col. Walter Betley of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers included a couple tours at The Ohio State University. He taught in the university’s ROTC program for two years and went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education that launched a second career. After having served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, Betley taught drafting at the Eastland Career Center in Columbus for 20 years.
What were some of your proudest moments serving in the Army?
To be selected without a college education to go to Officer Candidate School. Without any training in that sense, I was very good at leading troops. I worked with my troops. As an example, in Germany, we were building a timber trestle bridge … and you try to drive a nail into green wood, especially oak — very difficult. This particular bridge had to be put together in a hurry because a tank unit was waiting to cross. When you put the deck on these bridges, usually you get seven men on their knees across the width of the bridge pounding nails. The armored colonel approached and was looking for the officer in charge. The sergeant said, “There he is. He’s the third one over pounding nails.” The colonel told me they had to get across and there I was pounding nails. My remark to him was that if I were not down here pounding nails, the bridge would not get completed as fast as you desire. Not one of these men is going to let me beat him pounding nails. That was the type of leadership I had with them.
Education always seemed important to you. Why was that so?
I was disappointed that I could not go to college when I left high school. I knew then the value of a degree. When I was discharged from the service [in 1946], under the GI Bill I had put in a request to enter Norwich University in Vermont. They sent me a very polite letter that they could do that, but two years later. They were so full.
I wanted that damn degree. I didn’t get my first degree until I was a major in about 1957 [while] stationed three years in Germany. The University of Maryland had a degree program in conjunction with the services to allow service members off duty to obtain credits toward a bachelor’s degree. These programs were generally given in the evenings to any of the military that was interested and available.
How did you come to be an instructor in Ohio State’s ROTC program and earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees here?
The reason I was assigned is that [my wife] Peggy was here in Columbus with the family. So I wrote a letter [while stationed in Vietnam] and asked to be assigned to The Ohio State University, not realizing that they would say yes. But they did. I hadn’t told Peggy about this, and when I finally told her, my letters [from home] stopped coming. She was not too thrilled about our retiring in Columbus.
When we got here, it was one of the best assignments I ever had. Being stationed at ROTC was really like a civilian organization, 9–5. I made an association with the industrial arts section of the Department of Education, as it was called in those days. I enrolled as a student after I retired.
Why did you decide to pursue a second career in education?
I was offered positions in construction and the civilian areas, but it would have required traveling and being away from the family. To me, education was very cultural, and teachers had a certain level of respect. Teachers also had long breaks and summer vacations. I just thought I would enjoy working with children. And it worked out that I did.
What are your recommendations for living a fulfilling, happy life?
Never be negative about anything. Realize that if you’ve been given an assignment, there must be a special reason for it, and to accomplish that assignment.
And understand what others have to go through. When I was an enlisted man, one of my people asked me to read his letters. I didn’t want to read his letters, but I realized he couldn’t read. So we developed a system whereby I read his letters and then I wrote letters for him, not to his mother, but to his pastor. His mother couldn’t read either.