Betty Packard Simplifies the Ballot, and Much More

in by

In response to a question from a St. Louis newspaper editor about what drove her, Betty Packard recalled studying French in college, realizing that only two letters separated the word ‘mushroom’ – champignon – and ‘champion’ – champion – and deciding that “I’d much rather be a champion than a mushroom.”  Over the years Packard, nee Reed, has championed many things, including journalism, women, and her family.

Packard has long had a passion for writing. “It began in grade school,” said Packard, of her love of prose. She worked for her elementary school newspaper; in high school, during the 1950s, she encountered Mrs. Ella Sengenberg, a journalism teacher who’d educated “anybody who was anybody” who graduated from her high school to pursue reporting, including the editor of the Indianapolis Times.

During her junior year, “Mrs. S” took a strong interest in Packard. One day, she brought Packard to the Indianapolis Times, marched her into the editor’s office, and told him to hire her, which he did.  The following year Packard was recruited by the Indianapolis Star, and wrote for that paper throughout her senior year.  She continued to work for the newspaper to pay her way through Franklin University,  studying journalism.

At the Star Packard became the county correspondent covering murder trials.  It was an atypical assignment; other women were writing for the “women’s section,” covering cooking and cleaning products. Packard worked 60 to 80 hours a week, tacking on another 18 to 20 hours for school.

Needing a break, just before her senior year Packard took a leave from college and landed a job as a legal secretary.  She met Jim Packard, and, on November 28, 1958, at the age of 21, she married him.   

On October 1, 1960 – Packard’s birthday – Jim died in a car accident. Packard became a widow, with an 11-month-year-old daughter, Lisa, pregnant with her son, James. “When Jim died, the bottom just fell out,” recalled Packard. “I always had someone to lean on, and now I was on my own.”

The next few years weren’t easy. Her son was born with a complication, which required weekly visits to doctors and feedings every three hours, around-the-clock.  Although she owned her house outright, because she was a single mother the bank required her father to co-sign for a loan. “It really made me mad,” said Packard. “It was because I was female! It seemed like everywhere I went, because I was a female doing male things I was told I couldn’t do it. And I kept asking, ‘Why?’

“I guess [that attitude] is why I got the call in ’72, asking if I would be the chief lobbyist for the Equal Rights Amendment in Indiana; which I was for six long years.”  Packard told the Indiana Senate president that the ERA was needed because there were “287 laws in Indiana that discriminate against women and children.”  She recounted the time her son went to get his driver’s license and was told he needed to have his deceased father’s signature; hers wouldn’t be sufficient. “I had to raise plenty of hell over that,” recalled Packard.

The Senate president didn’t support the ERA, but promised Packard that together they’d change all 287 laws. “And we did,” said Packard. “And at the same time I also got the ERA passed; Indiana was the last state to pass the ERA.” The ERA ultimately failed, falling two states short of being ratified.

Once her children were in grade school Packard finished her college degree and went on to teach at Ben Davis High School, Indiana’s largest school. She headed the journalism department and taught there for three years, “long enough to know it wasn’t my future career. I loved teaching,” said Packard. “I loved the kids. But I didn’t like the school board censorship of the school paper. I would ask, ‘How can I teach the first amendment if you won’t allow us to practice it?’ It was interesting and challenging, but I’ve never hesitated to take on a challenge.” She was at the school upwards of 80 hours a week, had two small kids, and “just knew there was a better way to make a living.”

She found her better living as the first woman editor for a national financial magazine, R&R Newkirk, a division of ITT Publishing, where she ultimately became the first female to sue for equal pay in the state of Indiana.  “It came to my attention that I was the lowest paid editor in the editorial department, and I had just as much education – if not more so – than the other people in the department.”

She filed suit in 1973, and won it the following year, increasing her pay by 50 percent.  “It was a huge learning process. I realized that through steady work there could be change. Though at times I have felt inconsequential, and there are still times I feel inconsequential…I don’t think I overvalued myself, but I didn’t undervalue myself either. I do worry about people who feel entitled; I don’t think anyone should feel entitled to anything, and I never felt entitled. I just felt like if I earn it I should have it.”

“I had a great time,” Packard said, of her stint at ITT Publishing. “I covered every major financial conference. I met really fascinating people, I traveled a lot, saw lots of things, met presidents and vice presidents of major corporations. I went to the White House. I was friends with amazing women journalists and we’d go to Washington and have fun together. It was an amazing time in my life.”

In 1975 Packard quit her job – it took three men to replace her – and started her own company, Packard Consulting, which created and/or editing newsletters, articles, pamphlets, and other marketing materials. Later that year she met Stephen Voris, a U.S. Army recruiting commander, at a party at the Indianapolis Press Club. They were married September 26, 1975.

Captain Voris was constantly reassigned to different locations. After her children graduated high school, Packard moved to Monterey, and then, in 1982, to the Presidio in San Francisco, where they resided for three years. After Voris retired from the military in 1987, they relocated to what they thought would be their “starter home”, on Potrero Hill, where they still live 30 years later.  “I love Potrero Hill, the area is great, and so are the people,” said Packard.

Throughout her career Packard has traveled to give speeches.  She published two books, including the self-published When Someone Is Crying, dedicated to helping people deal with death, which sold 60,000 copies in six months.  The book emerged from a suggestion from a group associated with the Million Dollar Round Table, “the premier association of financial professionals,” which Packard has engaged with since she was with ITT Publishing.

Packard became involved in volunteer work a few months after relocating to San Francisco. Her introduction to the City, and finding avenues in which she could help, was assisted by her ties with Pi Beta Phi, her college sorority, a connection she’s nurtured over the years, serving as president in 2008, and helping to start a literacy program that she remains involved with today.

“I started volunteering because I was mentally in the position where I felt I had hit some of the highest pinnacles I could in my career. I was in a maintenance form of my career and living in a great City and participating in it has been important to me.”

In 1997, when Packard was director of the National Federation of Press Women, she was asked by the San Francisco Ballot Simplification Committee to find a suitable local journalist to serve on the committee. No one was available and/or willing, so Packard stepped in. What started as a two week volunteer position has lasted 20 years.  Packard has chaired the committee since 2003.

The Simplification Committee provides an unbiased explanation of the measures that appear on the San Francisco ballot.  With two dozen measures, more than any other year, the process this election cycle was grueling.  “For this session it was three solid weeks of nine to five testimony — of hearing the measures, hearing the advocates, hearing the lobbyists, hearing the public — and coming down to a real complete unbiased book. And there are 24 City measures, most of which this time are very complicated. We work until we understand it, until we can make the voters understand it on an eighth grade level.”

“Packard’s broad experience has given her the principles she applies to her work on the Committee: ‘To be objective and considerate of both the process and the people involved,’” said Tony Kelly, president of the Potrero Hill Democratic Club.

“Betty is one of those miracle people one is lucky to meet along the way in life,” said director of elections, John Arntz.  “She’s principled, open-minded, and a juggernaut who moves past obstacles. We’ve all benefited immensely that she returns every year.”

Packard wants to resign her position on the Committee when the timing is right. “There will be three new people on the Committee this year, and if I left as well there would be four, and it just wouldn’t work with four new people,” she explained. “I just have so much invested in this Committee. In the beginning no one had much interest in staying on the Committee, and if I didn’t stay all the people that wanted us gone would win. So I just took it upon myself to make the Committee work. And that is something that has become very important to me.”

Another longtime volunteer position Packard holds dear is with the San Francisco Symphony Store. A music lover all her life, and a music minor in college, Packard got involved with the symphony when she moved to San Francisco. “Can you imagine?” asks Packard, giggling, “Thirty-five years!” This year, out of more than 1,800 symphony volunteers, Packard was named Volunteer of the Year.

Next year marks Packard’s 50th year as a Press Woman. “It’s an important organization to me; as a result I chair the State High School Communications Contest and work with about 25 high schools throughout the state and come up with state winners. I always have a Northern California awards program as well. So that is close to my heart.”

Packard is also involved with the Old First Presbyterian Church as an elder, though she’s looking to reduce her responsibilities; is on the advisory council for the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park; and on the National Education Board for the National Press Women. “It’s one of those things,” said Packard, “if you are asked to fill a niche and you can fill it, and you are going to be able to do the best job that you can do, then why not?”

“You just do it,” Packard said. “How did I raise two children and work as a single mother in the ‘60s and ‘70s when there wasn’t single mothers working? I’d like for it to slow down, but there are people that maintain it will never slow down for me because that’s how I function. I sleep four to five hours a night, sometimes I can’t sleep more than that. What I really want to do is sit in a rocking chair and read a book,” she laughed. “But I can’t do that. There is always more to do.”

Packard will be 79 this year; she refuses to let a number determine her abilities. “It’s infuriating for doctors to say to me, ‘You have to look at how old you are.’ Sure I look at people who aren’t doing what I’m doing at my age, who aren’t involved in life, or who don’t find life exciting…but life motivates me! My husband calls me Mrs. Curiosity. I am inspired by learning, and seeing and doing new things. There is always something new to learn, always something new to do.”

One of Packard’s greatest achievements, and what she’s most proud of, is her family. Packard has six grandchildren and five great grandchildren. “Most of my grandchildren are all involved and as passionate about things just like I am, so it’s really great to see the continuation of passion about life.”

Packard will never be a mushroom; she’s already solidified her legacy as a champion. “Sometimes I think I’ve lived a thousand lives. I think each part of my life is its own separate journey that has come together on the path of life. I’ve had many excursions.”