I first met artist and arts ally Betty Adams and her husband, J. Allen (Al) Adams, retired of counsel with Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP, at CAM Raleigh’s opening in late April of 2011. She was as gracious and soft-spoken as her husband is big-hearted and pugnacious. They shared a similar twinkle in the eye and I guessed that a sense of humor and tolerance were two of the secrets of their long marriage. We met a few more times at local arts events, and I always left wanting to know her better. Sadly, Betty passed away in August of 2013 after a short illness. “An artist, professor and active supporter of the arts, Betty's warmth, sense of humor, joi de vivre, and talent illuminated the many lives she touched,” said the obituary in the Raleigh News & Observer that week.
Betty Adams was instrumental in founding the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) Raleigh at 409 West Martin Street, one of the bright lights of the brilliant downtown Raleigh Warehouse district. She served four terms on its board. How fitting that CAM Raleigh recently launched The Betty Eichenberger Adams Society. "We're bringing women of the community together to support museum operations and programs through individual giving and advocacy," explains CAM Raleigh's Executive Director, Gab Smith. CAM Raleigh board member Joyce Fitzpatrick, a longtime neighbor and friend of Betty’s, suggested the connection between Betty’s legacy as an artist, arts educator, and community leader and the future growth of the contemporary art museum that will be nurtured by the Society’s supporters. “She would have been honored to have the Society named after her,” says her grandson, artist David Eichenberger. “But she would have been almost embarrassed as well! She didn’t like to be the center of attention. She liked bustling in the background.”
Born Betty Joan Blomgren in 1931 to Swedish immigrant parents, Betty went on to graduate with a BFA from the well-regarded Pratt Institute in 1953. She married Fred Eichenberger a year later and raised five sons in their new home of Raleigh, North Carolina, where Fred taught at the NC State University School of Design. Twenty years after graduating from Pratt, Betty received a Master of Arts Teaching from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She began teaching at St. Mary’s College in Raleigh in 1973 and nineteen years later, retired as Chair of the Fine Arts Department and Professor Emeritus, having touched an entire generation of St. Mary’s students. She married Al Adams in 1977.
She was both a painter herself and a patron of the arts known for her diplomacy and steadfastness. “You don’t raise five boys without a certain level of patience,” grandson David notes with a laugh. Along with board terms on Raleigh’s ArtSpace and Visual Art Exchange, she served two terms as a legislative appointee to the NC Museum of Art board, and worked tirelessly to bring CAM Raleigh to fruition. “I met Betty sixteen years ago,” remembers current CAMRaleigh Board Chair Charman Driver. “We used to meet at Al’s law offices before CAM Raleigh even had a building. Betty was a great friend and mentor. She was such a powerhouse in so many ways, but softly. So funny, and always happy and full of joy. She had a progressiveness about embracing contemporary art—she totally got what CAM was trying to do. What a firecracker!” Somehow, Betty also found time to work with Al to renovate their home and helped to restore the surrounding neighborhood. Margaret Ruth Little’s book Cameron Park, Raleigh, North Carolina is dedicated to Al and Betty Adams “for their pivotal role in reversing the deterioration of Cameron Park….”
“Betty was gracious, and indefatigable,” her friend and fellow CAM Raleigh founder Cathy Ward explains. “We sorely miss her.” Al’s colleague, Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP partner and current NC Bar Association president Catharine Biggs Arrowood, describes Betty as a tireless advocate and peerless hostess with an open heart and an open door. Her grandson remembers that she was always moving on to the next thing, whether it was in her garden, as a volunteer at the Women’s Center in downtown Raleigh, through her board work with NCMA and CAM Raleigh, or with her book club where members wrote essays and made presentations about an author or an artist whose work they were passionate about. “I was the grandchild with an interest in art. She loved having company,” David remembers. “When I was thirteen or fourteen, she signed us both up for figure drawing classes at ArtSpace, and off we went! ‘Historically, painters did not sit around waiting for college. You need an early start!’ she encouraged me.” Not a Raleigh native, she brought her cultural perspective, her warm wit, and her energy to her adopted home and made it a better place through her artistry, advocacy, and hard work.
Betty’s life was not without challenge. She was preceded in death by her former husband, Fred Eichenberger and in 2010 by her son, Peter Eichenberger. Her life was enriched by her five sons, her 1977 marriage to J. Allen Adams, by the three stepchildren that came into her life, by her eleven grandchildren, and by the friends and family who were a constant presence in her home with Al in Cameron Park.
How fitting that CAM Raleigh—a haven for contemporary art and design in downtown Raleigh, with a mission to reach out across generations and across the community to bring what’s now and nearing to our city—has formed a society of supportive women in honor of Betty’s legacy. Created a month ago, there are close to one hundred Founding Members at this writing, and counting! What a unique legacy for one of Raleigh’s visionaries. For more information about The Betty Eichenberger Adams Society, please visit this link or contact Director of Contemporary Art Foundation Marjorie Hodges at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text © 2015 Barbara Wiedemann, Design Story Works LLC "Person, Place, or Thing" blog
Photo courtesy David Eichenberger