‘The best job in the Army’
Betty Blankenship retires
Betty Blankenship, who had become a fixture at Territorial Headquarters (THQ), retired earlier this year after a 43–year career with The Salvation Army. But many people will be surprised to learn that she honed her expert secretarial and proofreading skills in the Manhattan advertising world.
A former officer, Blankenship worked almost her entire life for the Army, but left from 1970 to 1984 to work for McCann Erickson, the global advertising giant.
She lived and worked in Manhattan and was the secretary to the company’s chief financial officer. McCann Erickson played a prominent role in the final episodes of AMC’s “Mad Men” TV show. Betty says the Emmy Award–winning series was realistic, “… in a lot of respects.”
Ironically, “Mad Men” featured a secretary named “Miss Blankenship.”
While that elderly character died at her desk, Betty left McCann Erickson and returned to The Salvation Army when Major Charles Olsen, then the director of the Community Relations and Development Department, asked her if she would be interested in filling an upcoming vacancy.
During the next three decades, Blankenship also worked in the chief secretary’s office and in the Business Section as an executive secretary.
“I had the best job in the Army,” she says. “That job was not only being a secretary, it was being a counselor and everything. People used to come just to sit in my office and talk because they needed somebody to talk to. That was a nice feeling.”
Earlier this year, officers and employees at THQ honored Betty. As Blankenship entered the dining hall, she received a standing ovation.
“I was overwhelmed,” Betty says. “It was nice to see so many people who wanted to say goodbye to me.”
Lt. Colonel Donald Lance, secretary for business, said Blankenship had for decades been “extremely important to the territory.” Commissioner Barry C. Swanson, former territorial commander, called her a “true professional—at the top of her craft.”
Remembrances from afar
Lance said when he took his new appointment; “Ask Betty” was a common refrain.
“They tell me she has the answer to every question,” Lance says.
“You are probably the greatest depository of Salvation Army information that we have,” Lance told her. “Your expertise will be greatly missed.”
Some of Betty’s former colleagues sent tributes, calling her superb and articulate and someone who blessed others while having the ability to put them at ease.
“She has been the glue that held everything together,” says Lt. Colonel James Reynolds, the former territorial business secretary.
Retired Major Janice May MacLean Angster recalled Betty as a hardworking, bubbly, efficient, trustworthy cadet in the 78–member Great Heart session. The 1959–60 class was the last one–year session of cadets.
“Betty is a Brave Heart through and through,” Angster says.
Betty came to training from Chillicothe, Ohio, where she grew up and started attending an Army corps at age 12. A friend who lived across the street invited her to attend Vacation Bible School.
Betty later worked at a Salvation Army camp, but she looked at life differently after a high school classmate died in a house fire. Betty accepted Christ at 17.
“But I didn’t feel called to officership for a couple of years,” she recalls.
Betty continued working to save money. In 1959, she became a cadet at the training school in the Bronx. The following year, she was commissioned as an officer. She served for 10 years before going into advertising.
When she returned to THQ in 1984, while living in nearby Pomona, N.Y., she became the go–to person who knew everything, but she privately admitted she didn’t know it all.
“It’s just because I’ve been there so long that they think that,” Betty says with a laugh. “I always said if I didn’t know the answer to a question, I knew who to call to find out the answer.”
Betty had another role at THQ, though this one was unofficial. She served as a proofreader for the Army’s various publications.
“We could always count on Betty to catch an error in an officer’s name or title,” says Warren L. Maye, editor–in–chief of SAConnects. “She had an eagle–eye for detail and a memory for Army history that was extremely valuable to us.”
Betty says of her proofreading days, “That’s the kind of stuff that comes with years of experience. I enjoyed doing that.”
Besides her on–the–job knowledge, Betty became an inspiration to the THQ family when she suffered her first bout with breast cancer in 1999. She said Colonel William Hunter, who also suffered from cancer at the same time, would often come by her office to talk.
“I think that really helped me because I never got depressed or down about it,” Betty recalls. “I’m a positive person; negativity is not in my vocabulary. You don’t want your friends to feel they have to constantly cater to you, but you also have to let them support you if they want to. That’s what happened with me. I’ve been so supported by my friends and family, especially the people in the Army.
“My spiritual life is fine and you have to have a lot of faith to go through these kinds of things.”
Calling Michigan ‘home’
Seven years ago, the cancer returned in her breast and lungs. Today, Betty is receiving chemotherapy, but is in great spirits.
“It’s been under control pretty much,” she says. “I’m not in any pain at all, for which I’m grateful.”
At her retirement party, Betty testified that when she was diagnosed, doctors gave her five years to live.
“I’ve lived seven already,” she says. “I expect to live another seven. I’m 77 years old, so I don’t think I’m going to work anymore.”
Betty, a self–described “career person,” never married, and is still close with her sister, Barbara Gabor.
Gabor told the THQ staff that she is taking Betty back to Michigan, where she will live in a nearby assisted–living center.
“She’s mine,” Gabor says. “I loaned her to you. Now I’m taking her back.”
by Robert Mitchell