Warrior for Peace and Children’s Health: Elizabeth Callan “Betty” Flanagan Bumpers (First Lady, 1971-1975)

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Betty Flanagan traveled far on life’s journey, from a small town elementary school teacher to her state’s First Lady and a globally recognized advocate for peace among nations in dangerous times. Her almost seven decade partnership with the man who described himself as “the best lawyer in a one-lawyer town” produced an impact for millions of people far beyond the small Franklin County town they called home.

Born in Grand Prairie to a father who was a salesman and auctioneer and a mother who was a homemaker, she moved with her family to Fort Smith during World War II, and spent a brief period in Iowa before returning home to Franklin County. During this time, Betty attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Art and the University of Iowa, and upon returning to Arkansas, became an elementary school teacher in Charleston.

Betty had a longstanding relationship with a Charleston High School standout named Dale Bumpers, who was part of a family prominent in the business and political scene. College and Dale’s service in the Marines separated them for a time, and they were married in 1949. That year, major events shaped the young couple’s life: Dale received his law degree from Northwestern University, his parents died in an auto accident, and they moved back to Charleston to take over the Bumpers family business while Dale started his law practice in the back of their hardware and furniture store.

The couple was prominent in the successful effort to desegregate the Charleston Public Schools in 1954; Dale as the district’s attorney and Betty as a teacher and community advocate. A tireless worker in her husband’s political career, she was an activist First Lady after Dale’s election as Governor in 1970.

She focused on issues important to families and children, and she worked with health officials to promote the idea that the lack of effective childhood immunization was a major cause of low numbers of children starting first grade, as well as a serious health risk statewide. Betty launched the “Every Child by '74” campaign to drastically reduce the numbers of unimmunized children, which attracted national attention through the Centers for Disease Control. With Betty’s assistance, these programs spread nationwide. After Dale was elected to the Senate in 1974, Betty teamed up with First Lady Rosalynn Carter to expand the campaign even further.

During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Betty shifted her focus to Reagan’s policy toward the Soviet Union, which included expanded nuclear arms production. She believed that the best way to overcome threat and fear of war was to initiate person-to-person conversations with Soviet citizens as a means to halt the arms race. Thus in 1982, as a result of efforts by Betty and other congressional wives, Peace Links was born.

Even after Dale retired from the Senate, Betty continued to be active in efforts to promote childhood immunizations. President Bill Clinton named the Vaccine Research Center in Dale and Betty’s honor in 1999. They settled in Little Rock in retirement until Dale’s death in 2016. She has most recently served on the board of Women’s Action for New Directions.

Learn about Betty Bumpers and see her inaugural gown in the Old State House Museum exhibit "First Ladies of Arkansas: Women of Their Times."