Community champions: Bettye English
Sharing the stories that intertwine her family with Hartselle
By Jennifer L. Williams
Photos by Rachel Howard and Contributed
With roots in Hartselle’s founding family, Bettye English remains entrenched in the community and shows no sign of slowing down – but doubts anyone cares to hear her many stories. “I feel others have a more interesting life to share than mine,” said the 84-year-old, who is still going strong, volunteering and serving on various boards and committees throughout the city.
Born in Hartselle in the middle of the Great Depression, Bettye Ann Sanders grew up in the community her great-great–grandfather, George Hartsell, founded in the 19th century. Her life has been intertwined with Hartselle ever since.
English attended Hartselle Elementary School – now F.E. Burleson – and graduated from Morgan County High School – now Hartselle High in 1953. From working on Main Street as a teenager and later at a local bank, to volunteering in various aspects to help better her hometown, she has had a front row seat for all the changes over the past eight-plus decades. English notes the great advances in everything from transportation to communication but insists the fundamentals of the Hartselle community have remained consistent. “The friendliness of the people, our ability to accept newcomers with open arms – that has stayed the same.”
Born to Foster and Purnie Stephenson Sanders in 1935, English and her parents lived with her grandparents, Charlie Stephenson and Fannie Hartselle Stephenson, in a farmhouse next to Bethel Baptist Church on Bethel Road. In fact, Bethel Church was established in 1872 on land from the estate of George Hartsell.
“I lived at the same location for 26 years,” she said. She has lived outside of Hartselle for two of her 84 years, “and even then, I still lived in Morgan County,” she added. English said she has fond memories of growing up surrounded by family in the white farmhouse her grandfather built in 1913. “It had everything – a woodshed, smokehouse, wash shed, chicken house, a potato house … even a two-seater outhouse that was used until city water came to the farm in the 1970s.” Back then, she said, “we grew or raised just about everything we ate and only went to town to get sugar, flour and, occasionally, bread.”
One could say English’s civic involvement started in high school. “I was the class secretary, in the National Honor Society and named alumni secretary-treasurer,” she said. “We were a very close-knit class and just celebrated our 65th reunion. For the past 15 years, we have met for breakfast every month – and we still chat and talk like we haven’t seen each other in years and sometimes act like first–graders.”
English’s first working days were at Kuhn’s 5 & 10 Cent Store in the toy department on the corner of Sparkman and Main streets. Bentleys at the Outhouse is now in that location.
“I would be sent across the street to Citizens Bank of Hartselle to get change during the day on Saturday,” English remembers. “My pay for a day’s work was usually $1.50 to $2. I worked there on Saturdays for the last year or two while in high school then moved over to Citizens Bank of Hartselle in February 1953.”
English went full time at the bank after she graduated from high school, and in 1960, the bank moved to a new building, where the William Bradford Huie Library is now located. The larger building – with a drive-thru and safe-deposit boxes – was a blessing, said English, who had moved to a teller position and later moved to the new accounts desk.
English also acquired a new last name that year when she married J.C. White, a Baptist minister and Redstone Arsenal employee, in August 1960. The couple met on a blind date at Dairy Delight after a church revival. They had one daughter, Bettye Marne White, who lives in Franklin, Tennessee, with her husband Marshall David Price. The Prices have two children, Kathryn Ann Price and Christopher Marshall Price and wife Anna.
English became a single mother when J.C. passed away in 1973, but she stayed busy with her job at the bank. “In 1976 the bank moved to a new, million-dollar, three-story building on West Chestnut Street,” she said.
She remained single for 14 years until she married James Fred English Jr., a devoted Gideon and friend of the family. “I then became stepmother to three additional daughters and now four step-grandchildren and four step-great-grandchildren.” Her second husband passed away in 2004, but English still travels to visit her English family members.
She spent a total of 40 years with the bank, which later became SouthTrust and then Wells Fargo. It was during her time with the bank she first became involved with community activities. “I was first asked by (bank president) Marvin Broom to become involved in a service called Matters of Importance,” she said. “This became one of the most rewarding and special parts of my banking service.” Bettye helped people get their affairs in order and assisted people after they experienced the death of a family member. “This all started the year after I lost my first husband,” she said, “so I understood to a certain extent what they were experiencing.”
She put together a program and booklet for those who needed the service. She often went above and beyond her bank duties. “(One customer) in particular had never done anything but tell her husband when she wrote a check. After I taught her how to record checks and deposit and how to balance her checkbook, if she was out of balance a dime, she would call me to stop at her house as I went home from work and find it. I enjoyed every minute of being able to serve people.”
Later, bank president Horace Broom invited English to join the Civitan Club. “I was the third female to become a member,” she said. “I served in all positions, from committee member to president.”
During her 30 years with Civitan, English helped raise money to install the first swing set for what became the SNAP playground for children with special needs in the community. She has been recognized as Civitan of the Year and Citizen of the Year and was given a plaque for enlisting the most new members.
English also has served as a director for the Red Cross, has served on the Morgan County Mental Health Board and became involved with the Hartselle Area Chamber of Commerce more than 30 years ago, starting with serving as chair of The Taste of Hartselle during Christmas Open House. She went on to co-chair the Chamber’s annual meeting with her close friend, Faye Walker, and is still active as a Chamber ambassador today.
English has been recognized with the Chamber’s Dr. Thomas Guyton Humanitarian Award, as the 2003 Ambassador of the Year, and she received the Hartselle Beautification Good Neighbor Award.
Other community awards she has received over the years include the 2008 Rotary Club Citizen of the Year award and the Clara Barton Red Cross Award.
Hartselle Mayor Randy Garrison said English is truly one of a kind. “I think of the old country song by George Jones, ‘Who is Gonna Fill their Shoes?’” he said. “Very few folks now are willing to step out and volunteer and get involved in helping to preserve our history and work to make our city a better place. She sets the bar high for community involvement and volunteerism.”
In 1989 English helped organize the Hartselle Historical Society after an editor with the Hartselle Enquirer became interested in the history of Hartselle and asked her to help get a group together. Her then-boss, Horace Broom, was also interested and knew so much about Hartselle’s history, “so he permitted me to work on this project even during banking hours. This has become one of my favorite volunteer jobs.”
The history of Hartselle has special meaning to English, given her family connections, and she has served as president of the society for more than 20 years. During her time with the historical society, Down Memory Lane was established during Depot Days, and the recent Lunch and Learn series has brought the history of the community to many.
“Bettye is an energetic force behind the Hartselle Historical Society,” said Lee Y. Greene Jr., vice president of the group. “Her determination makes it all go forward. She works tirelessly on hosting events and planning for displays. Her knowledge of Hartselle is almost boundless, and we rely on her for her contacts with the many Hartselle families that make up our city’s heritage.”
The Burleson Center Committee was once a part of the Hartselle Historical Society, which worked on the preservation and restoration of the building. It later became its own entity.
“I am still a director on that board and arrange for volunteers who help to keep the doors open Monday through Thursday,” Bettye said. “It has certainly been an interesting journey, and a lot of hard work has been put into this beautiful and historic building. I am so pleased the community has been cooperative in supporting us and now is using it for so many different functions.”
Mary Yarbrough serves with English on the Hartselle Historical Society Board of Directors and said she is “constantly amazed” at English’s energy and how much she accomplishes. “Bettye works tirelessly for Hartselle and challenges others to do likewise. She is an inspiration and works harder than most people half her age.”
Involvement with church has long been a large part of English’s life – from ringing the bell for services and to celebrate the end of World War II at neighboring Bethel Baptist Church, to her service as the minister’s wife at Pines Baptist Church, Pine Ridge Baptist Church, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Wren and East Highland, where she is still an active member and Sunday School teacher.
“I think I have been involved in everything except serving as a deacon and a member of the Brotherhood or Men’s Ministry, as it is called today,” she said with a laugh. “The Lord has really blessed me with health, vision and a love for serving others. I cannot thank Him enough for all the blessings and opportunities me has given me and for the mentors that have been a part of my life. He has also given me a wonderful family that I dearly love and enjoy being with so much.
“I am grateful for all the special people I have been privileged to associate with – who have set examples of courage and wisdom, who have given me the opportunity to learn new ways to serve people and who have shown me so much about how to live, serve others and share with others,” English added. “I am blessed beyond words and thank God for letting me live so many years…I have truly had an interesting and blessed life.”