Life Stories: Betty Adams helped transform Raleigh's Cameron Park

CorrespondentSeptember 16, 2013 

Betty Adams.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ADAMS FAMILY — photo courtesy of the Adams family

  • Betty Joan Blomgren Adams

    Born: Aug. 7, 1931, in New Britain, Conn.

    Family: Marries Fred Eichenberger in 1954, moves from Ohio to Raleigh in the mid-1960s, they divorce in the mid-1970s. She marries J. Allen Adams in 1977. She had five sons with her first husband: Kurt Eichenberger, Tom Eichenberger, David Eichenberger, John Eichenberger, and Peter Eichenberger, who is deceased; and three step-children: Ann Borden, Jeff Adams, and Spencer Adams.

    Education: Graduates from Berlin High School in Connecticut in 1949; earns bachelor of fine arts from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1953; earns master of arts in teaching from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1973.

    Profession: Teaches at Peace College and sells real estate for a short while before joining the faculty at St. Mary’s College in 1973. She teaches at St. Mary’s for 19 years, retiring as chair of the Fine Arts Department and professor emerita.

    Civic involvement: Works on the restoration of a number of homes in Cameron Park; serves two terms as a legislative appointee to the N.C. Museum of Art, as well as several terms on the boards of Artspace and the Art Exchange; instrumental in founding the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, also serving four terms on the board; awarded the Paladin Art Achievement Award by the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce in 2004.

    Died: Aug. 27 in Raleigh

Before Cameron Park regained its status as one of Raleigh’s most sought-after neighborhoods, there was a time when many of its historic homes were largely in disrepair, some converted to multi-tenant boarding houses.

It took folks like Betty Adams and J. Allen Adams (he was first a neighbor, then her attorney and later her second husband), to petition the city to change the zoning of the neighborhood to turn things around. What had been zoned R-10, a classification that allowed boarding houses, became R-6, allowing for no more than six families per acre.

Their efforts are being documented by Ruth Little, a Raleigh resident preparing a centennial history of the neighborhood.

In it she writes, “Al and Betty were key among the new generation of urban pioneers who started moving into Cameron Park in the 1960s. Their unique talents – Al’s considerable legal skills and persuasive power, Betty’s warmth and role as consolidator of information – united the neighborhood behind the effort to reverse the decline.”

It seemed Adams’ life was built around such efforts, though most were far less public. During her 19 years on faculty at the former St. Mary’s College she shepherded countless young women into a love of the arts. As a mother to five boys, and stepmother to three more children, she left a legacy of patience and warmth. In her retirement, she was an advocate for art, music and theater throughout the state – in particular, an early supporter of the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh.

Adams died last month from complications following a stroke. She was 82, and the night before she died she attended a cocktail party at the home of her friend and former St. Mary’s colleague Lucy Melbourne, as always lighting up the room.

“I used to say Betty was like a glass of champagne. Every time you saw her you’d get a lift,” Melbourne said.

Adams was born in Connecticut and showed an early affinity for art. She earned an undergraduate degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but it was 20 years before she worked professionally in her field as an artist and educator. She was busy as a wife and mother to five boys.

Her first husband was a professor of design who often had summer jobs that took the family all over the country. During those weeks-long journeys, they’d camp under a large canvas tent, and she’d prepare three meals a day on a Coleman stove. Some years it was at sea level in Ocracoke, others at 10,000 feet in Aspen, Colo. Regardless, she managed to make it fun and take it in stride.

“One night, somewhere in Kansas, a tremendous storm blew down the tent, and in the black of the rain while the sky threw lightning, she herded her babies into the safety of the Suburban,” her son Tom Eichenberger recalled at her funeral.

She showed the same nurturing spirit in their adulthood. When her son Peter was left disabled following a bike crash in 2006 she was tireless in her support until his death stemming from that brain injury in 2010. More recently, her son Kurt suffered a stroke and once again Betty was ready to assist wherever needed.

She educated her children all along, but it wasn’t until she earned her masters degree in education that she began a career outside the home.

“She taught us about art and design in such a nonchalant way that I thought every kid knew about Picasso and Matisse,” said her son David Eichenberger.

At St. Mary’s College, she left a legacy that warranted an ongoing award in her name. The Betty Adams Art Award is given annually at the honors convocation, and a work of art is purchased from the deserving student and hung on campus.

“For me Betty was not just an artist, she made every moment into art. She appreciated every moment, she got incredibly intense pleasure out of everything,” Melbourne said.

“When I told Betty that I had qualms about all the time I would have on my hands when I retired, she said, ‘Oh, but retirement is when you savor everything!’ Betty knew how to savor.”

Her beach home on Emerald Isle embodied the joie de vivre for which Betty was known, her family said. It had been renovated over and over again, each project carefully executed to make the most of both the beauty of the space and the memories it would hold.

She often painted there, her husband said, more recently venturing from oil paintings to water colors. She was preparing for an exhibit of her paintings at the Roundabout Gallery in Raleigh – there will still be a show honoring her work sometime in December.

“When I hear people talking about ‘paying it forward’ I think about my mom; she always seemed to be looking for a way to make the world a better place,” David Eichenberger said.

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