Bettye Cecil

Bettye Cecil

During a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, Bettye Cecil visited a health care center that housed older adults. She noticed that the hallways had mirrors in them, and that the residents were dressed nicely – a marked contrast to similar facilities in America in the 1970s, where people walked down the halls in their house robes or night clothes.

So when she returned to her family’s health care center in Spartanburg, South Carolina, she decided to make some changes.

“I purchased inexpensive full-length mirrors and had them placed at convenient sites in the hallways,” she said, adding that she also asked families to bring street clothes for their loved ones.

The change was dramatic. Residents soon started taking more notice of their appearance. “One day a lady came up to me and asked, ‘Ms. Bettye, who is that old lady in the mirror?’ It had been so long since she’d seen herself in a full-length mirror,’” she reminisced.

Bettye Cecil has seen – and made – many positive changes in the field of aging. The Cecil family owns and operates White Oak, a group of 16 long-term care communities in North and South Carolina. Bettye earned an education degree while she and her husband, Oliver Kent Cecil, raised their five young children, and she joined the family business in 1974 when federal regulations required nursing homes to employ a full-time social service director and activity coordinator.

“Well, I wasn’t a social worker, so I became an activity coordinator,” she said, adding that the Master of Arts in Teaching she earned in 1967 helped her meet this new challenge.

There was no playbook for how to create recreational programs within a nursing home. So she created one. For a decade, Bettye attended therapeutic recreation seminars and began teaching classes at local colleges and pulling resources from Clemson University to assist her in teaching the courses. These early classes became the foundation of today’s more highly developed courses required for national certification as an activity professional or consultant.

It wasn’t enough to just teach courses, though. Bettye had a larger vision, and together with others in the field they created the National Association of Activity Professionals. NAAP is the only national organization that exclusively represents activity professionals working in primarily geriatric settings. Bettye was active in helping establish state activity professional associations in North and South Carolina, and today, there are associations in every state. Through her work, Bettye helped shape the field of stimulating activity for older adults.

Bettye and Kent, who passed away in 1996, have continued their dedication to health care and older adults through their generosity to Clemson.

Kent, a 1950 Clemson architecture graduate, and their oldest son, Oliver Jr., created a fellowship in the Oliver and Bettye’s name to provide support for geriatrics and genetics studies, establishing an endowment with a $25,000 gift in 1991. Bettye has continued their legacy and giving at Clemson with the creation of a distinguished professorship in memory of her husband.

“My husband always gave to IPTAY, back in the days when it was $10 a year,” she said. “It (giving) was something I wanted to continue. I was approached about giving something to architecture and nursing and that piqued my interest.” The Oliver Kent Cecil Memorial Distinguished Professorship for Architecture and Nursing was created in 1997.

In 2006, Bettye expanded her philanthropy even further by creating The Bettye Cecil Endowment for Clinical Learning and Research Center. The fund supports the needs in the simulation lab for Clemson nursing students – a critical component of their education.

The family’s legacy isn’t limited to philanthropy. Bettye has a grandson who is a Clemson alumnus, and her youngest granddaughter will be a nursing graduate in December 2017 and is a four-year Clemson cheerleader.

Her granddaughter’s success gives Bettye just one more reason to cherish and support the School of Nursing at Clemson University. “It’s important that we support programs that benefit the future of the college and the students’ futures,” she said.

At age 87, Bettye splits time between her Pawley’s Island home and Spartanburg, where her family and corporate office, White Oak Management, are located. She still serves on the board of the now-three-generation business.

Whether through her business or Clemson, one thing is clear: Bettye Cecil will always be a pioneer and change-agent in health care.