Betty Schoenbaum, one of Sarasota’s all-time leading ladies, was smart, sassy and unafraid to show a little leg.
Betty Schoenbaum told me she was going to keep kicking her legs until she couldn’t kick them anymore.
And that she did.
Sarasota lost a legacy Tuesday — just eight weeks shy of what would have been her 101st birthday.
Touching virtually every organization in our community, this extraordinary philanthropist taught many of us her motto of “the joy of giving is the joy of living.” She once told me giving back is not about the money, but about the feeling you get that makes you want to break out into a tap dance.
She knew I could relate to the dance analogy.
Betty bonded with my family over ballet. Never going professional because she was too tall for dance in her day, she was a ballet student in her youth and a dance enthusiast.
Just to prove she still had it, often times at social events, Betty would shimmy up to my mother, Lisa, sister Kate Honea (principal ballerina with the Sarasota Ballet) and me (former Sarasota Ballet corps member) and secretly show us a Rockette-style kick. In fact, Betty didn’t give up tap dancing until she was 96.
My sister and I were lucky enough to do a few shows with her — fashion shows, that is. Betty started modeling in Designing Women Boutique fashion shows in 2003. And seeing her glide down the runway with cool confidence made every single rehearsal (and there were a lot of them!) worth every minute.
Phil King, former CEO and executive director of the Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center, and Betty’s close friend, says she was quite funny and sometimes even a bit naughty.
“Betty didn’t drink or like chocolate,” says King. So he asked her, “What do you like Betty?” She replied, “I had a daughter at 49. What do you think I like?”
Which would explain why every single conversation I had with Betty always drifted to the status of my sex life. With cheeks red, I would reply: “Betty! I’m not going there!”
Always disappointed with my answer, she promised me she would set me up with her wildly handsome and successful entrepreneur grandson, Brian Schoenbaum, who lives in Austin, Texas. Unfortunately, after some Facebook stalking, I recently learned that he is now engaged. Darn.
Speaking of Betty’s family, she has a big one — one that started with her husband, Alex Schoenbaum, the original “Big Boy” of Shoney’s. I remember thinking that getting her entire family in one photo smiling and with no one blinking was a giant feat. We did it when everyone came in 2007 when Betty received the American Jewish Committee’s Human Relations Award. During her acceptance speech, she recounted how she met Alex.
“He said to me the first time he saw me, ‘My mother wants me to marry a Jewish girl, and I’ve never met a beautiful one before you.’”
My mother always marveled at how “with it” Betty was, remembering everyone’s names and even pumping her own gas at the ripe age of 97.
AJC’s Regional Director Brian Lipton recalls visiting her home for the first time when he was new to town about 10 years ago. He, too, was amazed at how aware she was of current events and politics. Betty’s response to how she did it:
“I read newspapers every morning,” she told him. “Two or three newspapers every day — that’s what keeps me sharp.”
I’d like to think the Observer was at least one of those papers, because each week Betty’s longtime Executive Assistant Ray Watson was religious in picking up the Longboat and Sarasota Observers at the Observer office. She even turned down my offer to have the papers mailed first class to her home.
As I recall these memories, I realize that we’ve come to, as Molly Schechter says, “the end of an era.” I know this to be true, because I can’t call the late Tana Sandefur or Phyllis Cobb to verify a vague memory I have at this very moment: The four of us — three of Sarasota’s most extraordinary philanthropists — creating clown centerpieces in Betty’s dining room in her penthouse for the inaugural “Laughter Unlimited” Luncheon that benefited Circus Sarasota (now Circus Arts Conservatory) in 2007.
Yes, now Betty joins Esther Mertz, Alyce Kalin, Ulla Searing, Virginia Toulmin, Janet Kane, Lee Peterson, Edith Barr Dunn, Sandefur and Cobb in what Schechter has dubbed the “Sarasota Era of the Great Female Philanthropists.” There wasn’t a greater era ever, and we are blessed to have had Betty Schoenbaum as the Grande Dame of them all.