Celebrating the Life of ECBT Cofounder Betty Bumpers 1925 – 2018

by jennifer@vaccinateyourfamily.org

As 2018 comes to a close, Vaccinate Your Family’s Shot of Prevention blog offers a tribute to Betty Flanagan Bumpers, Cofounder of Every Child By Two. Betty passed away Thanksgiving weekend and ECBT staff traveled to her memorial where Amy Pisani, long-time Executive Director presented a eulogy in tribute to Betty’s life-long mission to save the lives of children by ensuring they had access to timely vaccinations. 

Eulogy for Betty Bumpers

Betty has become famous for her statement… “I used who I was shamelessly”

And, as her friend Rosalynn Carter so poignantly noted, Betty did more than any other person in this country to keep children safe from deadly diseases… they have truly been the greatest benefactors of Betty’s tenacity.

Many of you here today know of the work Betty did on childhood immunizations. But what was it that shaped her desire to tackle the formidable task of ensuring that the nearly 2.1 million children born every year in the U.S. are vaccinated on time?

Her experience of life here in Arkansas beginning in the 1920s is a concept that most people of my generation (and especially the younger generation who are today’s young parents) cannot conceptualize, nor truly appreciate.  She often told the story of how her small community of Charleston had their share of children who were lost to diseases such as measles, diphtheria, and rubella or were rendered deaf.  She told me how her mother taught her critical public health hygiene techniques that she credited with keeping her and her siblings healthy, and alive. This included simple acts, such as pouring boiling water over the dishes after they had been washed.

Her father once told her that “about 5 % of the people on this planet make 100% of the contributions towards society  and that you shouldn’t be surprised when you run into them time and again on your travels throughout the world.” Betty was certainly in that top 5% of the doers, and aren’t we lucky for it!

She often recounted the story of how she and Dale joined other parents on long lines at public health clinics in the 1950s to receive polio shots for the entire family and how grateful they were to the public health staff who were helping to keep their children safe from the paralytic horrors of polio. 

As a teacher in the 1950’s Betty witnessed first-hand as her own students would come to the classroom with the high temperatures, rashes, and bloodshot eyes – all of which were the telltale sign that measles epidemics would soon come sweeping through the town.

Later when she became the First Lady of Arkansas, Betty came to realize that she had great power and the ability to mobilize people to a cause.

Betty always credited her community organizing skills to a public health nurse named Nell Balkman, whom she met through the nursing home her family owned. She always held nurses in the highest regard and ensured that they played a major role in all of our vaccination efforts – for as long as I can remember.

One day when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contacted Betty to inform her that the immunization rates in Arkansas were among the lowest in the nation, they asked that she educate the people of Arkansas about the need to vaccinate their children.

Betty Bumpers and volunteers on route to a plane to conduct the Every Child By 74 immunization campaign throughout Arkansas

She replied tersely that they didn’t need more educating, but if the children needed to be immunized, she would see to it. Working alongside Nell and her staff at the Arkansas League for Nursing they invited volunteers to the Governor’s mansion to create a plan of action.  Alongside the Agricultural Extension Programs, the National Guard, the USDA, the American Medical Association and over 6,000 volunteers, they went to work vaccinating the children of this state. Within one year, 100,000 children were given 400,000 vaccines and the immunization rate for polio vaccine went from 50% to 80%. She subsequently developed Arkansas’ “Every Child By 74” Campaign which was an even bigger success!

Betty’s model was hailed a success by the CDC, who asked that she encourage other first ladies to replicate her programs.

And as fortune would have it, her good friend Rosalynn Carter heard her speak at a governor’s conference and started a program in Georgia.  Later, after Dale was elected to the Senate, Betty was frustrated that she was not able to get the national attention she felt children’s vaccines deserved.

As Rosalynn wrote, Betty called her to ask for her help. She and Betty have recounted this tale time and again over the years and it never gets old.  As the story goes, within weeks after the Inauguration of Jimmy Carter, Betty was the first person who came knocking on the door of the White House. She was there to elicit Rosalynn’s support, which of course she offered…. Although, because mental health was her main priority, she wanted Betty to take the lead. Betty always grabbed a lot of laughs, when she’d follow Rosalynn’s account stating that… “Rosalynn didn’t know it, but I came to see her for two reasons”, she’d say. “First to recruit her to help on vaccines, but mostly to see the upstairs of the White House!”

At President Carters’ direction, she was to work alongside Joe Califano, the Secretary of Health Education and Welfare and Dr. Bill Foege, Director of the CDC to outline a series of programs to tackle the issue. Things really took off from there as the Carter administration implemented several initiatives to increase funding and coordination in an effort to improve vaccinations rates of children in the U.S.

Betty and Rosalynn’s partnership has become legend among the public health community. They have been credited with the passage of laws in every state mandating vaccination-verification prior to school-entry.  This meant that they finally had a way to account for every child by kindergarten – and they celebrated in the White House as measles cases plummeted.

Sadly, several years later a measles outbreak struck the country killing many young, unvaccinated children. Rosalynn called Betty to see what they could do to put a stop to the needless suffering.  And, as Rosalynn loves to tell the story… she went on a trip to China and by the time she came home, Betty already had an office in DC, a director and a name “Every Child By Two” —this was meant to remind parents of the need to get most of their children’s vaccines by age two…not to wait until kindergarten.

Rosalynn Carter, Betty Bumpers and the babies celebrate the launch of Every Child By Two

Betty and Rosalynn traveled to every state in the country within the first two years to highlight the issue and garner support. The trips were an enormous success. Many states followed Betty’s model and developed their own immunization coalitions, many of which continue to thrive today and who are among ECBT’s greatest partners.

They worked with every administration, forging bipartisan legislation that has had a major impact on immunization funding and access to vaccines.  As Bill Clinton came into office in 93, Dale and Betty were instrumental in encouraging them to develop several programs that have brought immunization rates up to the highest on record.  Through the creation of the Vaccines for Children program, every child in need has access to free vaccines, and children served by the USDA’s WIC program are now screened regularly to ensure they are up to date on their vaccines.

Betty offering the life-saving drops of polio vaccine

One of my most memorable trips with Betty took place in 1997 when we traveled along with the CDC to Cote D’Ivoire and Zimbabwe, where we were able to witness that appreciation that has often been lost on today’s generation.

As we went from village to village to take part in National Immunization Days, scores of children, mothers and fathers lined the routes as though it was a parade.  They held ceremonies and the public health nurses sang us songs about the power of vaccines. Betty was even able to administer those life-saving polio drops to the children, which meant the world to her.

We took some time at the end of the trip to stay in a wildlife refuge where 72-year-old Betty and I stayed in a tree hut together. On our first evening we made the colossal mistake of not shutting off our lights before heading to dinner followed by animal viewing at the water hole until quite late. Imagine our horror when we returned to our tree hut to see that the mosquito nets covering our beds were literally covered with Jurassic sized beetles and bugs!  Betty had to get on her hands and knees while I gently lifted the net for her to crawl under – not the best night sleep – but we sure did giggle a lot over the sound of the bugs!

So much has changed since Betty began her crusade to immunize Arkansas children. Back in the 70s, there were only a handful of vaccines to protect children.

Today, we can protect children and teens from 16 dangerous and often deadly diseases.  The infrastructure needed to locate and immunize every child in America is an intricate web which has been hailed as a model worldwide. Without a doubt, Betty’s foresight and unwavering commitment to childhood vaccines was the initial thread that is now woven through our country’s public health infrastructure.

Carter, Bumpers, Epps, Mayor & First Lady of DC

Well Rosalynn’s kind words about Betty are true to heart. ECBT’s long-time board member Walter Orenstein, was the CDC’s National Immunization Program Director for many years, and traveled to countless conferences, and public health clinics alongside Betty.  I believe that he speaks for everyone at ECBT and in public health in the words he sent to me this week…” Betty was so wonderful and a true inspiration.  Countless children are alive and well today because of her dedicated efforts to assure they could and would receive the vaccines recommended for them. While she is physically gone, in essence, she has achieved immortality because of her leadership and the major role she played in developing the vaccination system we have in place today”.

Betty was my boss for over two decades.  As we traveled the nation and the world, we shared countless stories about our families and lives.  She became my friend, my mentor and my hero. While I have been missing her for many years now as we have been apart, each spring the many flowers that I cultivated from her lovely gardens in Bethesda begin to bloom in my own garden, reminding me that she is always with us, sowing the seeds of change.

Amy’s garden filled with flowers from Betty’s Bethesda garden


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