My name is Kay VanderLey, I was born in Travers City, Michigan. And my name is Betsy VanderLey, I was also born in Travers City, MI.
Oral history with Orange County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey and her mother, Kay VanderLey, at the Orlando Public Library on April 14, 2017.
LISTEN Part I (19:55) (Text highlights from audio interview.)
What was a typical Sunday like for you growing up?
Kay: Easter we always had special dresses and hats and went to church. I often times sang in the junior choir. The little kids would come in their little robes and sing during special occasions. No stores were open. It was a day of rest. In fact, you wouldn’t even date a check on that date. You would post date your check if you happen to buy something on Sunday because that was not a legal day to transact business. A typical Sunday was very restful, quiet, some Chopin music on the radio.
Betsy: So typical Sunday for me is kind of two part.
A day on Lake Michigan
When we were in Michigan it would have been church. And I remember the gloves and the little hat with the rubber band underneath my chin to hold it in place and ruffly socks and all of that going to church. And so, that would have been a typical Sunday. But then, very often when we were in Michigan, we had a boat and so we would very often leave church and go out and get on the boat on Lake Michigan and enjoy a day. And during the summer and spring, the days get very long in Michigan so it would literally, the day would end, it would start getting dark around 9:30 or 10 o’clock at night. And so you could have a very, very long day out on the lake. And so, that was nice.
A day at New Smyrna Beach
When we moved down here, Sundays often entailed everybody loading in the car and heading over to New Smyrna Beach or Port Orange or some place like that and spending the day on the beach. You would get a hot dog from the vendor, now they’re called food trucks, but at that point they weren’t quite that trendy. And you could rent some kind of an inner tube or some kind of a boogie board for the waves or something like that. And so we would spend most of the day there and pretty much come back fried to a crisp. And that was a typical Sunday growing up down here.
Ponce Inlet Lighthouse at New Smyrna Beach circa 1970’s.
What did your parents do for a living?
Betsy: My parents were contractors. Dad started out as a roofing contractor and then got his general contractor’s license and opened his own business. And mom and he were partners in that business and worked together. And they did that for many years.
Kay: And my parents, mother was a stay at home mom, and my father built roads. [And he built roads for a private company or the state?] For the county, actually. [So that’s very hard work isn’t it?] Yes, I’m sure he worked very hard. He was more kind of in the supervisory area. [Betsy: Even so I remember you telling me about when he got hurt.] When he was young. Yes, I’m sure he did a lot of physical work. [But I remember you telling me one time he had pneumonia and there was no insurance or safety net or anything like what we have now… you said your mother was pregnant with you, I think.] That’s right. He had had an accident on the road. And he was very fortunate to have survived.
But there was no work comp or anything like that so the family was just on their own. Mother with a three or four year old daughter and pregnant with me. Things were different then. And she worked very hard to actually save the house from being foreclosed on. She found a local person who made loans. The banks wouldn’t touch her because she was a poor risk and so she found a local person who actually made loans to lower level people and took a loan from him which was very brave of him to loan to a woman like that. But he believed her to be trustworthy and gave her the money and she saved her home. My father came home the day before mother went to the hospital to have me. So he was just home from the hospital and still healing up. He was in the hospital for many months from that. And the next day they went to the hospital and I was born. Hard times. Hard times with no one to fall back on, no family. [Betsy: late thirties still Depression Era.] Oh yes, everything was used until it fell apart.
Did they have a garden?
Kay: Oh, yes...
Betsy: That garden was fantastic, too. I remember it was huge. It was most of the backyard. I was a little kid, it seemed enormous to me. And I remember going back there and hiding and scarfing down black berries until they yelled to get out of there or there would be nothing to make jam out of.
Kay: That’s right, we had to limit you. And dad’s favorite smoke back there.
Betsy: I would pull my shirt up like a bowl and I would load it up with blackberries and then I would climb up that pine tree and view the world sitting there eating blackberries when I was a kid. It was great…
Did you all know your grandparents?
Betsy: I did.
Kay: Just barely. My grandmother lived in Oregon and she did spend a few weeks with us one year. And so, I have memories of how she looked and how she acted. But I really didn’t know them, no.
Betsy: My grandmother, my mom’s mom was probably my favorite person on the planet. And I still think of her to this day. I don’t know what it was. I just felt like with her, this was a safe place. And I could sit and not have to worry about what I was or wasn’t or needed to be or whatever. And so it was a very safe place to sit on her lap. And when we would spend the night, she’d rotate through me and my siblings. It’s your turn to spend the night. So when it was my turn, it was fantastic!
Friday night at my grandparents’ house
My grandfather would pick me up in his Rambler, AMC Rambler. No radio playing. So I remember, I was just tall enough, I could barely sit in the front seat and I could just see out the window. Just. Mostly it was looking up into the sky and the trees as we went by. And I remember he was a quiet man. He didn’t talk an awful lot. And so, we’d take the ride back of maybe two miles, maybe not even that, with no radio playing and I would hear, I have this memory of riding in that rambler and the noise of the brick road underneath and the blinker. And he would almost always stop at this little corner market on the way to pick up Coke and peanuts and some ice cream and cookies or something like that… So it was always a treat to go over and spend the night on a Friday night. It was really special.
And they had taken boarders in from the state hospital to make ends meet. So they always had some people in different bedrooms. It almost functioned as a halfway house for some of these folks coming out of the hospital. They had some mental difficulties and weren’t necessarily able to care for themselves, but they weren’t dangerous. So they would take in boarders to kind of make ends meet.
We always had a variety of boarders. And I remember one in particular, Emmett, I think his name was. And he polished rocks and made jewelry out of them and things like that down in the basement. And I was just fascinated. He would take a Petos key stone which is an old form of fossil and he’d polish it to a real high gloss and cut it into the shape of Michigan or a cherry or whatever and then string some kind of a chain through it and sell it to make his ends meet and to make money, too. The economy was so different than we understand it today. You know everything was very cottage industry and you found creative ways to get your bills paid so that was always interesting to me as I look back on it.
Was that your introduction to geology?
Yeah, I think it was. I fell in love with stones. I found it fascinating that this nothing stone could be picked up and polished and look completely transformed. And I found that very interesting. If you go in my house now, my kid’s call it ‘”mom’s collection of dead stuff”, but I have fossils that are highly polished and different sandstones where you could see a fish has been laid on over periods of time with different sand and they’ve caught it to show the fossil. I have a lot of that kind of natural history in my house. I just find it really fascinating. And I’m pretty sure that’s where it started.
So he got me to the point, I think, I was maybe five or six when he was there. I wasn’t very old. But he would- he showed me that he could take any stone and see what it was going to look like polished if you just spit on it. So I would pick up stones and spit on it and rub the spit on there to see exactly what that would look like if you polished it and whether it was anything remarkable. And to this day when we go on vacation and we take walks I’ll pick up stones…
What is your earliest memory of Orlando?
Betsy: Well, we moved down here in the spring of ’71 because my younger brother was born in 70 and we got here just before his first birthday. So it would have been February or March.
Kay: It was March. We came in March. The orange blossoms were in bloom. We got probably, as I think of it, just into West Orange County and Betsy’s dad said, “Roll down the windows.” And we did and the fragrance! I thought, oh, my gosh, I’ve come to heaven and I didn’t know that was my destination. Isn’t that wonderful.
Betsy: That and the Spanish Moss and the Live Oaks. I remember thinking what interesting trees. And they always struck me as old men with all the grey hanging down and they were kind of gnarled. The most interesting looking trees. They didn’t just go straight up and you cut them for lumber. They just had this whole personality and it was really interesting as well.
Kay: And then summer came and we realized immediately that we had not moved to heaven. We had moved to hell actually because it was so hot and we were not used to that kind of humidity from Michigan and that kind of heat… At that time Orlando and Central Florida was still pretty farmerish. Things were done differently. People thought differently, expressed themselves differently, expected different things from you. And, of course, you children were put into junior high. You and your older brother and it was just a year into desegregation. And there was a dress code which you hadn’t experienced. School was hard for you guys.
Betsy: It was. And then because of the busing and the desegregation there were multiple times that we evacuated from the school because of bomb threats and that kind of thing. And, there was a culture difference. Because in Travers City I think there may have been one black family – not living there – just passing through – and I never spoke to them. So we moved down here and there’s suddenly this entire population of people with a different dialect and I really struggled to figure out where I landed; how that played into what I’d seen on TV with Dr. Martin Luther King as a kid; and how that measured up. And how this whole getting evacuated from the school for bomb threats multiple times how that was a piece of this.
School Dress Codes
Kay: But her biggest complaint was the dress code. She could not wear slacks to school. She had to wear dresses.
Betsy: I was a tomboy and suddenly I have to wear a dress. And I thought, what? Why do I have to wear a dress? What does that have to do with learning anything? The whole cultural piece of it was so vastly different.
Kay: But it changed so quickly after that.
Betsy: It did, like wildfire. But at that point, girls in middle school were required to take Home EC to be prepared to take care of a house and the boys were required to take either shop, auto shop, or the carpentry type of shop. They had to pick one of those so that they would be able to take care of things. There was a very, very distinct line between what girls were expected [to do] and what boys were expected [to do] and that changed very quickly. Because this was also a time of women’s lib. And so, those cultural roles, they changed so rapidly. So within a space of three years it had flipped completely on its head. Here it did. In schools it did. And we weren’t the only people moving here from other parts of the country that were bringing a different idea of culture, a different idea of gender roles then was local here. And so, it really, it was a very rapid change.
Kay: Orlando became way more urban.
Betsy: Well, they started finding their community as an artistic community.
Kay: As Disney came in that made a big change.
Disney brought a Creative Class
Betsy: It brought a creative class that didn’t exist really prior to, so that, I think, informed a lot of the changes that were happening in schools because people were coming and bringing their children. And they had a different expectation about what our community would function like… When we first moved down here we were at Lee Middle School for just that last piece of the school year. And then let’s see we moved over to Azalea Park. We hadn’t purchased a home yet so we were kind of moving around figuring out the area. And I went to Stonewall Jackson briefly for just that half of the school year and then went to Conway Middle and finished out at Conway Middle and then went to Boone. Graduated from Boone High School. All the kids went to Boone.
Grew up in the Conway area which was at that point the edge of town. When they say SOTO it always makes me laugh a little bit because at that point there was no south of downtown, that was the edge of town; that was the suburbs.
Kay: They grew up on the lake on the Conway chain.
Betsy: Water skiing and all that. I remember I had a younger brother that was mischievous. I remember he and some of his buddies- you know we get these huge torrential rain storms in the summer – and he and some of his buddies decided they would create a playground for us to enjoy. So they blocked off the storm drain. But they blocked off the storm drain and the water backed up so that down by the storm drain you were about waist deep in water. And then they pulled out the john boats. The streets were full of water. The yards were full of water. They paddled through the streets. And people were riding their bikes into it and all of that. And so, that was a great deal of fun…
Mudding in East Orange County with the VanderLeys, circa 1977-78.
Gator nest on Lake Conway
But I also remember Wes and his friend John. My brother and his friend getting in the john boat and going out on Lake Conway and found a gator nest. And the gators had just hatched. And so they loaded up. They said, “Look we’re going to take this back and share this with everybody. Look what we found.” They brought lots of babies into the boat and started paddling for shore. And the babies were chirping as baby gators will do. And mama heard them. So they’re paddling for all they can. Mama’s coming up behind them. I think it was John that was paddling and Wes was pitching baby gators out the side of the boat just as fast as he can. And the gator’s gaining on them. They unloaded all the baby gators. Didn’t have much except a wonderful story to tell…
Kay: The seventies were kind of turbulent times for everyone, I think, certainly for our family. Because I went to work. Daddy was working. The kids were turning into teenagers, the older ones, and it was a time of change, I think, the seventies.
Betsy: The country was changing. Because if you stop to think about it, the seventies were desegregation, they were women’s lib, redefining gender roles, redefining race roles, redefining in a short period of time. So it was tumultuous in many ways. That’s how change happens. It’s always messy and there’s always collateral damage.
Kay: I have specific memories of all of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. I can tell you where I was when it was announced. It was an interesting time.
Our brilliant Constitution…
Betsy: I remember getting up for school that morning and dad was reading the paper and the headlines was that. And I remember thinking I wonder what this means. Does our country move forward? And, I’m always amazed, I talk to people who are very well educated, and so many of them don’t even know that our President Ford- because of circumstances Spiro Agnew resigned and they moved Speaker of the House up to the vice president role as our constitution called for and then Nixon resigned and then he moved up into the presidency- President Ford was never elected. He was elected to Congress was the election that he ran; but served as president without being elected as president. And I’m always shocked out how many people don’t understand that. Because to me, that’s a case in point about how brilliant our constitution is because it functioned and our country went forward. And there was a provision for that kind of eventuality if ever it occurred. There was a provision for it.
Redefining Societal Roles
If you stop to think about the seventies though, the backdrop of redefining race relations, redefining gender roles, redefining government, every piece of our society was pulled up and looked at and examined and changed in some way for better or for worse and went forward from there. So, in many ways it was a difficult time, but it was an amazing time, too. That was my teen years.
Mrs. VanderLey you said that you went to work at that time. Was that your first time working outside the home?
Kay: Yes. Actually, my first job was for the same company that my husband worked for. Their secretary quit… they just needed someone to answer the phone for a little while and I came in to make a little extra money. Then I worked full time for, I guess, 20 or 25 years after that moving into the accounting area and so forth with different people.
Did you and your husband start your business in Orlando?
Kay: We started it here… We started a roofing company in the seventies. And then that didn’t make it through the oil embargo in that period of time and the dip in the economy. And then we started General Contracting in the eighties, I guess… There was a lot of opportunity. It was a real boom and bust area.
So there were big highs and big lows… we worked originally, did a lot of work for what was then Martin Marietta. It’s now Lockheed Martin. And then, of course, probably politically the season changed and the money wasn’t there and so their contracts dried up and we had to look for other sources, other customers, clients. Always something to worry about.
Betsy: The expressway, you guys did a lot of work for the expressway. They still talk about dad over there. There’s still some folks there that were junior when dad was over there and they still talk abut what a fine man he was and all that.
Kay: We moved to Oakland in 1992, 1991 and things were so desperately mismanaged in the management of that little town we moved to. Then my husband became interested in – my husband was always Mr. Fix-it. It didn’t really matter what it was that needed fixing. He would take it on. And so, he ran for mayor and won. Then he became so involved in all of West Orange County.
Jane: He helped them get out of debt.
Kay: Absolutely. Got them out of debt the first year on solid financial footing. But the town was still marginalized by factions, I think. We would struggle sitting together in the evening about how to unify the town and get everyone together on the same page and moving forward. And we happen to see a little blurb on public television about a little town in Michigan that we knew. We had been trying to get a new school into the area. Trying to get the taxpayers because that’s the way they do schools there to float a bond issue. And the taxpayers wouldn’t go for it. They didn’t want to spend the money.
What do you want for your town?
And finally they went to all of the taxpayers and they said, “What would you like? What do you want for your town?” And they took a survey and what they wanted was a place to exercise, a place to hold meetings, a place for – all the taxpayers had their different ideas about what they wanted. And they incorporated that into the school and it drew the town together and became very successful. The taxpayers passed the bond issue.
Oakland Avenue Charter School
And I said, “How about that for Oakland? We need a school.” So my husband went to work to get financing for the school. And he could tell you the upside down situation financially to do that. I know he worked for three years to get the financing in place for the school. I sat and watched him. Call after call after call. And finally he found the vehicle that would find the financing for the school and the school went forward. And it became just exactly what we had envisioned for the town. The town now had a focal point.
Public Works Building
Kay: In that same time, we needed a new really public works building which would house the police and fire department. And the old town hall was ridiculous and so we needed a new town hall. All of those things were built during the time he was mayor there. And the citizens all were happy to have a little bit of a millage increase so that they could have these amenities in their town.
Highway 50 Expansion
Betsy: Well, even beyond that, he was also instrumental at that point, well right now, if you think about Highway 50 and the way it is now, given the original DOT plan, they would just now be looking at expanding Highway 50 this year. It wasn’t anywhere in their planning stages. And so, dad made the case that it was important to have Highway 50 widened as a public safety so that people could get inland from the coast. And he made a strong case for that and was able to get the funding for Highway 50 not just moved up, on the radar within a very short period of time which was a big lift. Because it’s hard to get DOT to change their plans on what they see in terms of their priorities. So that was a huge lift.
Kay: And true to his way of doing things he went into Lake County and said, “Look, we’re right close together. We all have this common problem. Let’s get together and see if we can’t find a solution.” And they came into the solution, too.
Mayor of Oakland
Betsy: So I think that that was really instrumental in me, you know looking down the road now, in me getting involved. Because dad had said, “I got this little project. I’m going to run for mayor. Will you help?” As a good daughter I said, “Sure.” I had no idea, you know, no background in politics. But, you know, dad asked, and sure, I’ll help. What do you need? It just kind of evolved from there and I was able to see what he was able to do. The joke used to be that, you know, they had their money from the business which was mom’s money and then dad got his $50 a month from the town of Oakland for being mayor…
West Orange Community
But at any rate, I watched what he did in terms of influencing the West Orange Community, not just Oakland, but the influence he was in that entire area and how it developed. The Oakland Nature Preserve came into being while he was there. The Friends of Lake Apopka started. And there was serious talk about the cleanup of the lake for the first time. All of these things kind of happened and he had his fingers in a lot of different pieces of it. And still to this day, the town of Oakland is who the town is because of the foundation that dad laid in terms of good government, in terms of the infrastructure of the town, in terms of the accountability of the town.
Kay: And that view is shared by the current folks in West Orange. That’s not just our opinion.
Betsy: So to watch him do that, I think, you start to get a glimpse of, you know, in the past especially, if you think about my kind of lens which I was looking at politics was the Nixon era and his resignation and the significant skepticism about government. And then to watch my dad weigh in and then do this in such an entirely different way. It really had a huge impact on how I looked at good government and what good government actually is capable of doing when it’s functioning the way it is supposed to. So I had kind of a watch growing up in the Nixon Era and becoming a voter not long after that. And then watching what my dad did. It had a really pretty profound impact in how I viewed what government was supposed to do and what they weren’t supposed to do. And really informed a lot of who I am right now. So, thank you, dad.
John VanderLey Park
Jane: They named the park after him, right? VanderLey Park is named after your father.
Betsy: It is. Somebody said, “They named a park after you,” when they heard I was running. I said, “No, that one’s named after dad. That is the John VanderLey Park. That is not the Betsy VanderLey Park.”
Florida: the Land of Opportunity
Betsy: I think people come here and they see Disney, and they see Orlando, and they see all that, but they miss the just absolute stunning beauty of this state.
Ponce de Leon Springs
The wildness of it, and the grace of it. You know, I talked earlier about the Live Oak trees with the Spanish Moss hanging on them, they’re twisted, and gnarled and grey. And absolutely there’s no two alike. And every one of them has such a distinct personality. And, I think, that may be that is why Florida is, I mean, we’re the land of opportunity.
You can dream it!
People come here to dream big and you just don’t see that every place else. And maybe that’s because of the wildness of who we are. We’re so young, yet in terms of metropolitan areas, we’re still- I tell people all the time, I kind of liken the Orlando area to a gawky teenager. They kind of know what they’re going to be, but there are still a lot of pieces missing. It’s not defined yet. It’s not settled yet. But, I think, one thing that defines this area in particular for me is just- nothing’s off the table- you can dream it. It doesn’t have to be done the way it’s always been done which you see in areas that are far more settled without the dynamic shifts that we have here.
Redefining who we are as a community…
If you think about it, when I decided to run for office I did a quick look back and just averaged out the growth in population to this area. And from 1970 to 2015 it’s been an average net growth of about 25,000 new citizens every year for 45 years. Last year it was like 66,000 to the area. This year we’re growing at a rate of just shy of 1,000 residents a week to Orange County. That’s a seismic shift in ideas and culture and wealth in every measure. And it brings this kind of really dynamic piece to who we are as a community. And it allows us since we’re not stuck in what always was to redefine who we are as a community in a way that you just don’t see everywhere.
Cranes on the skyline…
It makes it really an interesting place to live. How do we decide what we’re going to be in 40 years from now with what we have now and who sees that vision. And what does that look like and where does that come from? It’s inarguably been fascinating the entire time we’ve been here for 47 years. To see the changes that we’ve seen as a nation, but to see the changes that we’ve seen as a community has just been mind boggling. The growth. I don’t know how other communities do it, but when I don’t see cranes on the skyline, I think, uh oh, the economy’s in trouble. Because I’m so used to having grown up and seeing the massive growth we’ve seen with cranes on the skyline, that says to me the economy’s in good shape.
The CNA Building
Kay: Orlando, when we very first moved here, probably the first drive through Orlando, what we called the CNA Building… was the only what we would consider skyscraper. My husband came and went to work for a company that had done the work on that building. And he was on the roof checking out some leaks when the first moon shot went off. And he saw the first moon shot from the top of the CNA building. I remember we went to the beach one weekend and the Apollo mission went off and it just shook the ground. It was something. You felt it in your chest. It was amazing that far away.
Central Florida Industries
Betsy: And I always think about that. People think about Disney and all of that. But if you think about it, within a few square miles you’ve got Disney, Universal, Sea World, and all that creative class right on the backdrop of one of the largest defense contractors in the nation… [Lockheed Martin] They do a lot of the stuff for Blackhawk helicopter that my daughter currently flies. And then we’ve got the world leader on simulation industry right here. And then on the backdrop of that, you’ve got a space program that is unlike anything else on the planet. All of that within an hour’s drive from each other.
Kay: And within a period of time that is absolutely amazing. When we moved into the area some of the older families were still alive and so willing to share their memories with me. They told me that as late as 1948, Florida was a free range state. And that means that if you – there were no fences between – coast to coast – and they could drive the cattle from coast to coast – to ship out of the golf there to the islands. And if you happen to hit a cow, animal on the road, you were at fault. You had to repay the farmer whatever he thought that car was worth. So we have the backdrop of this citrus and cattle exclusively, and then boom! Look at us now, what a change…
Betsy: We still have actually the largest cattle ranch in the continental United States right here on our back steps with Deseret Ranch, too. So, I mean, it’s just a really interesting juxtaposition of who we were as a state that we still own and who we’re now and where we’re going and what those ideas look like. I always find it just kind of a fascinating soup. So, yeah, it’s been interesting to be part of that…
Would you say that in some ways Central Florida is a paradigm… this influx of new people coming with different cultural backgrounds, educational backgrounds, whether it’s technology, agriculture, business. You know, we have entrepreneurs, the creative class that you mentioned and yet still we have harmony in our area…
Betsy: I think for the most part, yeah. I mean there’s always issues here and there that pop up. In the happiest of families there are siblings that disagree. But I would say, by and large we have learned how to be a community in a pretty harmonious way. And, I think, a big piece of that is there are so many new people here. It’s not like this is how we’ve always done it. They’ve all come here to reinvent themselves together.
And I have to say it’s kind of a microscope of the United States because you look at other countries where these long held prejudices and family groups, and culture groups are not forced to get along because they’ve been able to hold on to these belief systems and hate that other group for a long time without anybody challenging them. When the United States was settled there was just no luxury of that because you had to get to the business at hand of putting together a country. And that meant you were going to have to get along with somebody who is different from you… And I think that in large part, this community is the same way. People have come here from elsewhere to reinvent. And many times, like us, there was no opportunity in Michigan for you all to feed a family. So you moved down here for survival for your family. So that kind of mindset, really, it forces you to work together with people that maybe you wouldn’t have, had you not made that move.
Welcoming newcomers to the area…
Kay: Yeah, from the newcomer’s standpoint. But, I think, we need to state that the folks that were already here, I’m thinking of the Oakland area in particular, because they have, there’s a church there that has membership, the seventh generation is now worshipping in the same church that was when it started. But, those folks were probably the most welcoming people I’ve ever met…
Commissioner VanderLey, you started your own business would you tell us about that?
Betsy: It would have been in the nineties, early nineties maybe when that was going on. Mom was actually my partner in that. We did environmental cleanup of underground storage tanks that leaked… The state had passed legislation saying that they were going to clean up all of those. And those that had the money were mandated to clean up the sites themselves and put in higher tanks with leak detection so that we didn’t have, you know, gasoline and oil leaking down into our groundwater.
And then the state took on those that didn’t have the funds to clean it up. It was in the interest of the state to get it cleaned up before it went into the groundwater. They contracted with a lot of different engineers that engineered the fix. And so we worked for those engineers actually, going out and doing the construction that would put in the equipment and do cleanup. And, you know, it went well the first year and then at the end of that year the state decided to pull the plug on the program because they felt like they weren’t getting the most out of their money that they expected or whatever. And so, they pulled the plug on that program and revamped the language on that. For a year I learned a really valuable lesson on diversifying your work base. Because we were out of business about that fast because of the legislation change.
So I learned, like anything. I tell my grandson all the time, some of the most valuable lessons, the most lasting lessons you’ll ever get come at the end of a sharp stick. Those are the ones you don’t forget. You learn to adjust. Those are the hard lessons. But those are the lessons that really inform what you do next.
But I look back on it now and I realize how much I learned about business. How much I learned about the economy. The relationships I made at that time. Understanding how government works on a very personal level that I didn’t understand before…
You have a legacy of your own public service… the list is long and it’s so impressive… Urban Land Institute Women’s Leadership Initiative Board, Real Estate Women, Society of American Military Engineers, Chairman of Orange County Planning and Zoning, Affordable Housing Board… would you tell us about organizing the first Oakland Heritage Festival?
Betsy: That was one of those things dad got me into… he had a committee, but the committee was kind of bogged down… and so I just kind of took it over. And we did like a chili cook off and we had some games out there for the kids, face painting. So dad’s vision for it was to have just an enormous community picnic so to speak and get the whole community out. All colors, all ages.
Kay: That’s right. We tried to place it geographically in an area where both the black community and the white community would be comfortable coming and joining it.
Betsy: It was the first attempt and it’s continued still. They’re still doing it every year. And it was the first attempt at just getting the community to understand what a really special it was and how special your neighbors were… And so I did that. It doesn’t seem all that remarkable now. In fact, I look at the list and I don’t think it’s that remarkable…
Urban Land Institute Women’s Leadership Initiative Board
The Women’s Leadership Institute for ULI is interesting because, you know, you asked me about my business. I started in the construction, engineering, and architecture, planning many years ago in my late twenties. And, I often was the only female in the room for proposal meetings. Sometimes with as many as 300 people and I’d be the only female in the room. And someone asked me one time if that wasn’t intimidating or not, and I said, “Are you kidding? 300 people in the room, who do you think they’re going to remember? I’m the only girl there so yeah.” There were disadvantages to it in that it was still very much “good old boy country.” But if you learned how to be credible with that group, they would have your back, too.
So it wasn’t because you were a female. It was because you were someone they hadn’t seen before and they had to process who you were on a trust scale whether you were trustworthy. And if you were trustworthy, it really didn’t matter your gender or your color, they were going to be right there with you. But it was still, and I try to get this across to women, I think, too often we focus on: Well, they’re not letting me do this because I’m female. Or they’re not letting me do that because I’m black. Or they’re not letting me do that because I’m Muslim. And that’s not really it. Human nature, I think, in general looks at difference and quickly tries to evaluate, what is that difference. How do I make sense of that difference not in a bad way, but just in, I’m processing this. And when you’re the difference, they’re going to process.
Honing your brand…
And so, I try in that effort to teach young women, the development industry is still very male dominated and that’s kind of the norm. I sit in meeting after meeting with people talking about land use changes and I’m very often the only female in the room. But I don’t feel that I’m at a disadvantage because of that because I’ve honed my brand. People have figured out who I am. And so, the message I’m trying to get to these young women coming in to their career is: Don’t put a chip on your shoulder because you’re female. Hone your brand. Show your worth. You’re not going to get a pass just because you have some difference. In fact, you’re going to get evaluated a little harder. But it will sharpen you and you’ll be better for it. So maybe that’s a different kind of message then they’re used to hearing….
And so it was a maturity of preparing for the world in which I was walking instead of, you know, we often try to change the world to suit us. And, I think, that’s a mistake. We try to, with our children in particular, I see this often… I remember talking to my grandson who was about twelve. Something upset him and I said, “Well, then let’s develop a strategy for you to cope with that because the chances of the entire world changing to suit you are slim to none. So let’s figure out how you’re going to navigate that thing that you don’t like so you can live with it because it’s not going to change.” And that’s the thing. And ultimately, and ironically, if you do that, and you find your way in the world as it is, then you have the opportunity to start moving the needle on who the world is at that point….
Mrs. VanderLey I do have a question for you actually. I read you got involved in prison ministry. Would you be willing to tell us how you got involved in that and what it’s like?
Kay: Yes, I do that still. I would love to tell you everything you want to know about it. That’s my passion… God called me to work a long time ago and I just kept putting Him off. And finally… there was an opportunity that presented itself to go into the Lake County Jail and push a cart around with Christian books… And from there I began to see that other people were coming in and just sitting and talking one on one with inmates and I thought I want to do that. And so, that’s what I’ve been doing now for close to five years, maybe a little bit more…
What have you both enjoyed about living in our community?
Kay: It’s home.
Betsy: It’s the place that we belong, that we make an imprint. That we connect with people, It’s the place we’re called to do the work we’re supposed to do. You know, it fits…. I remember when we moved to Conway and we didn’t have air conditioning in the house yet and we’d throw the windows open and we’d smell the Blue Bird Factory. They’d be burning pulp up there and you’d get that whiff. It was wonderful. And you’d hear the night sounds, I learned how to recognize what a gator sounds like vs. a frog. And you just started to kind of see the beauty and the mystery of it. I love to travel the world. I’ve been many remarkable places. But I come back and I get that whiff of air of Orlando. There’s a distinct fragrance to it. I think, home…
How do you feel about the opportunity to serve as county commissioner?
Betsy: You know, I don’t know. I guess, I saw my dad and what a difference he made. And so, I kind of took that forward and helped a lot of really great people get elected to office trusting that they would carry that banner and I could go back to my life in between elections and work and raise my family. Commissioner Boyd is a dear friend. And when he knew he was going to be termed up he kept talking to me as did Commissioner Brummer for many years: You should run for office, You should run for office. My dad added to that chorus and I always thought no I really shouldn’t. Because it’s a disruptive process. It’s expensive personally. It’s disruptive personally.
Kay: For me, too. I had to walk with her.
Betsy: She did. She knocked on doors with me every Saturday while I was campaigning. I couldn’t have done it without mom. And people may have listened to me, but they didn’t dare disobey my mother.
Kay: That’s right.
Betsy: But, I think, it really, it became really apparent to me, you know, I kept looking about for who was that person I was going to support which is what I’d done in the past. And the whole time I felt God whispering in the back of my mind, but you’re that person. I didn’t have kids at home anymore. I didn’t have those kinds of constraints. My husband and I talked about it, gosh, for almost two years before I said I would do it.
Kay: It’s harder, I think, on the family of, than it is on the candidates. It’s very difficult on the family of because things are said during elections, accusations, unfair and untrue accusations are made. And the candidates expected that, but it’s really hard on the family. Because you have to not weigh in on that. And so, the fact that your husband said yes was major.
Betsy: Considering how private he is, yeah it is. It’s huge. And I wouldn’t have done it without him. Because at the end of the day, I always used to joke with people that I’ll know if God wants me to run if my husband thinks it’s a good idea. Because I know that’s a more important relationship. When it’s all said and done and I finish serving, that’s my relationship through my life. The voters will forget me within a year. It’s just natural… So I always knew and I always told every candidate I’ve ever helped, “If your spouse is not on board with this, don’t do it…”
One of the fastest growing job markets in the United States…
We knew what that was going to look like for us and how difficult that was going to be for us… But the flip side of that was I had an extraordinary opportunity to impact and shape a community that I so deeply love and has so impacted my family and who we are… a lot of it for me was that opportunity. You just don’t get that in your lifetime very often. It’s a remarkable opportunity to be the voice of a quarter million people roughly in a very fast growing state; one of the fastest growing job markets in the United States. And I have the fastest growing district in that job market. So, everyday is challenging and every day presents different little problems. But the opportunity to serve my community that way and see what they’re going to look like for the next generation is pretty extraordinary, too.
Kay: I think a hallmark of our family, if you were to distil it all down would be without exception that we are people who look around and say, “How can I help you?”
Betsy: How can I make that better? What role can I play in improving that?
Jane: And certainly with your background, you bring something to the work of commissioner that not everyone has as far as your background in planning and zoning, your background in business development, and your background in public service…
Betsy: I think everybody brings with them their unique skill set to whatever task it is that they’re going to tackle. In my particular case, I always look at it like it’s a balancing act, right. It’s a balance between offering and protecting somebody’s property rights while making sure you don’t impact their neighbor’s property rights adversely. It’s a balancing act of how do you allow the development that we’re seeing for the seismic shift in population to the area while still protecting some of our rural areas, some of the beauty of what we would see when we would go out mudding in the woods with four wheel drives. How do you protect? How do you balance, making sure you don’t lose some of that.
Mudding in East Orange County with the VanderLeys, circa 1977-78.
I saw some statistics the other day that said somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% to 30% of the entire state of Florida is developed and the rest of it’s raw. I think that’s a healthy equation. The problem is that people will often look at where they live. And we live in developments. And we shop in developments. And we go to school in developments. And we think that that’s the whole of who Florida is and it really isn’t. We talked earlier about how many people miss what Florida really is because they never get out of the city or the amusement park or whatever and get out on a four wheel drive and get into an area that you can’t get into any other way and see…
And so much of it is not developed and never will be. I had the privilege of touring Deseret Ranch and walking out there and seeing the largest rookery of rosette spoon bills I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Thousands of them. And I was just in awe of them all in that one area. And that is a stone’s throw away from where we’re sending off rockets to other planets. So how do you balance those really crazy pieces?
During my career, I remember a few years, maybe six or seven years ago, looking back in frustration. It looked like I’d started a business and then that failed. And then I went into the field and that didn’t do well… I mean, this ended here and this ended here. And it looked like I’d never put together a real thorough line. Like most people they start with their career, they end here with that same career and there’s a connected piece through all of that. And I was a little frustrated with all of that. And I remember thinking when I got elected, every one of those pieces, every one of those tiny rows has so richly informed the decisions I get to make now, to make them far more multidimensional than they would have been elsewhere.
And I liken that to, if you think about our lives as a tapestry that God weaves, and on the back side of that tapestry there are all these loose threads that don’t make any sense and it just looks like a tangled mess. But when you flip it over and you see the whole picture it’s just amazing. So, I think, that all those little roads that seem so disconnected, I think somewhere along the way, on the campaign trail it’s like God flipped the tapestry over and said, “Here it is.” And I went, oh, that’s what that was for. So, that’s been an amazing journey personally. And then to try and bring that dimension of thinking to the decisions that we make about who we’re going to be in the next decades, that’s a real challenge.
Impact of government
And, I think, I do see it from a small business center. I see the impact that government makes in trying to make payroll. It has a very direct cause and effect. I see the impact that you can make as a government through what my dad was able to do in government as a community building exercise. And, I see, you know, Mom’s experience at the jail has informed how I look at what we do through Orange County Corrections…
So there’s all these different little pieces that now they all make sense. They’re not these tangled loose threads that you see on the back of the tapestry. It’s flipped over and I get to see this picture and it’s pretty remarkable. So that’s amazing personally. It’s just an amazing, joyful piece of the journey that I’m on right now, too.
Interview: Commissioner Betsy VanderLey and her mother, Kay VanderLey
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: April 14, 2017
Place: Orlando Public Library