She started in the PTA, and it wasnt bad training for a later career in politics. Plus, the truth was that women of Betty Ann Knudsens generation had few alternatives other than the PTA in terms of getting started toward elective office. Not many women held office, and Knudsen would in fact turn out to be one of the most significant women in North Carolina in terms of earning that distinction.
Betty Ann Knudsen, the first woman to serve as chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners (1978), died Friday at the age of 85. She had lived an adventurous life of community involvement, travel, love of family and friends and a devotion to noble causes. She was fearless. She possessed personal magnetism, curiosity, humor and an interest in serving humankind that had her asking questions about local issues with some she had mentored only days before her death.
It is not a cliché to say she will be missed. Its hard to imagine not hearing her thoughts or reading them, or to think she wont be out there helping some disciple run for office.
And by the way, she collected butterflies.
Yes, Knudsen proved it was possible to get involved in tough issues such as the merger of the Raleigh and Wake County schools, a contentious but supremely worthy cause that she helped to spearhead, and still appreciate butterflies.
And yes, she thought it was possible for Raleigh and Wake County to have efficient governments with a businesslike attitude and still have greenways and unified libraries. But she didnt just focus on the amenities. She also pushed for a countywide 911 system.
Knudsen in many ways personified the development of this area and was typical in some respects while being an exceptional person. (She did spend a few years with her husband in Costa Rica, where they trained people to raise butterflies and her collection took shape.)
For example: Wake County grew immensely, and still does grow, because of the Research Triangle Park. Knudsen and her late husband, Pete, happened to be among the earliest transplants to come to the area because of RTP, arriving in 1960 when Pete Knudsens job with Chemstrand brought the family (children were Erik, Karl and Karen) here.
And like so many RTP arrivals, the Knudsens became solid and lifelong citizens of the community and participated in all sort of activities out of a sense of duty and no doubt, to get to know others in the community.
Betty Ann Knudsen learned quickly. In 1976, after leading the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, she was elected to the Wake County Board of Commissioners, and in 1978, was the board chair. In between, she was a key ally in getting one of Raleighs most affectionately remembered leaders elected to public office.
The Raleigh establishment had been in power for a while, and Isabella Cannon, with Knudsen advising, toppled that establishment with her election as mayor in 1977, winning as a little old lady in tennis shoes. Cannon became a folk hero.
Along her long way, Knudsen was inspiring and in effect training the coming generations of women whod serve in office in Raleigh and Wake County. For some she was an adviser, for others an example. In 1984, she was the first North Carolina woman to run for statewide office, unsuccessfully seeking the Democratic nomination for secretary of state.
Current Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane reckoned Knudsens influence was still being felt. She remains a role model for women following her into public office, McFarlane said.
Yes, she trained well by example. But one of her life lessons, perhaps, was that while being well-informed and tough and determined to move a community ahead on the issues dont forget about butterflies.