Monday, February 05, 2007


Of all the professors I had as an undergraduate three really stand out to me fifteen years removed. Dr. Raymond Betts is one of those. I met him twenty years ago now while still in high school at a program at Berea College. My friend David Abner was with me, and I recall Dr. Betts correcting our pronunciation of Proust. I was to discover that Raymond Betts was a historian of nineteenth century French colonialism, so had far more knowledge of Proust than a sixteen year old. I certainly hadn’t read Proust. I still haven’t.

Dr. Betts was a man with a far ranging intellect, but also depth of mind. I remember long conversations with him in his Honors Program office, meeting him on campus and walking with him. He always seemed to have time for me, although he was an incredibly busy man. He always had new questions, new thoughts running through his head. Who else would think to offer an entire semester’s course on the Eiffel Tower in its centennial year?

He was a liberal of the old school, not a liberal of the modern academy. When I became a conservative columnist for the school newspaper Dr. Betts always read my columns, and frequently complimented me, with the occasional chide for some over the top comment I might have made. Looking back, I know he was justified in each criticism, and certainly overly generous in his praise. He, as much as anyone, helped push me into my own study of intellectual conservatism. He actually knew who Russell Kirk was, and he respected a vigorous intellectual conservatism. When I became a Gaines Fellow in the humanities program Dr. Betts founded and directed, the program paid for me to fly to interview both William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk. Had it not been for Raymond Betts I never would have not only met Russell Kirk, I never would have worked for him.

Once Dr. Betts gave his lower arena basketball tickets to my friend David Abner and me. He served as a faculty member of the University Board of Trustees, a position that came with top flight basketball seats. To have such seats was quite a treat for two boys from eastern Kentucky. Kentucky beat Florida that game, and Dave and I were accosted by the old gentleman seated behind us because we kept standing and cheering during the game, blocking his view.

Perhaps my favorite memory of Dr. Betts is the time Dave and I invited him to our dorm room for pizza. He accepted our invitation, and when the day came it was absolutely pouring rain. Our dorm was on the other side of campus from the giant office tower, but Dr. Betts gladly came. He was so soaked by the time he arrived we had to give him clothes to change into. And there sat Raymond Betts, Ph.D.—French colonialist, member of the University Board of Directors, Director of the Honors Program and Director of the Gaines Center for the Humanities—on a dorm bed in borrowed sweat pants and t-shirt eating pizza with two undergraduates. The invitation itself meant something to him, as I heard him comment to others more than once that it was the only time he had been so invited by students.

As is often the case with such things, I had not spoken with Dr. Betts in several years. As is almost always the case, I regret that. On Friday Dr. Betts passed away at the age of 81. Today was his funeral. He will be missed by a host of his students, and also by me.

[Read the Lexington Herald-Leader obituary]