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Powerful Women: Let's Talk - 98: Betty Burton Groce

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Betty Burton Groce

Jennifer Moss welcomes Betty Burton Groce to this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk

Community advocate, Betty Burton Groce shares her story of 30 plus years of experience in education, business, volunteerism and public service. And she still giving to the community she loves.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.


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Produced by women, about women. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world; transforming who we are and how we live.

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Jennifer Moss: Hello, everyone, time for Powerful Women: Let’s Talk. Thanks so much for joining us today. I'm Jennifer Moss. It is a pleasure to bring you today's powerful woman, Betty Burton Groce. Betty has a long, powerful history in Grand Rapids. 30 plus years of experience in education, business, volunteerism, and public service. A former CEO of Wonderland Business Forms, an elementary school teacher for nearly 25 years, and she currently continues her dedicated work in public service by working and committing time to young people at the Kent County Juvenile Detention Center Walks School Residential Program. You’re gonna find her there every Friday. Betty Burton Groce, so happy to welcome you to Powerful Women: Let's Talk.

Betty Burton Groce: Thank you.

Jennifer Moss: A bit more you need to know about Betty - we can't cover it all, but we're surely going to try. She's always been heavily involved again in the work of community service her entire life. She's a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority; a public service sorority, she served on the commission of Early Childhood Initiatives, Girl Scouts of Michigan Trails, the African American AIDS Coalition, and trust me, this is the very short list. She's also been on countless boards like Mercantile Bank, Grand Rapids Urban League Board, and Grand Valley State University Foundation Board of Trustees, the Right Place Board of Directors, and Economic Club of Grand Rapids. I also have to mention a few awards like the Giants Award here in Grand Rapids and the Michigan Women's Foundation Award - that's huge - and is a distinguished alum from GVSU. WCA Tribute Award, and the Girl Scout Gold Award. All of this has powerful woman written all over it. So again, we do welcome you Betty Burton Groce to Powerful Women: Let’s Talk and so, tell me about this. You've been active in our community for so long, you are a role model even to myself, full disclosure. I've known Betty for many, many years and have been so impressed. You’re like family, and it's an honor to be able to interview you today. You have had quite a career and community driven life, basically. And at this stage, you’re kind of retired, but you’re still heavily involved in the community. As we mentioned, on Friday, we can find you at juvie. Are you enjoying the journey at this point?

Betty Burton Groce: Yes, I'm enjoying it. Certainly moving at a slower pace and not doing as much as I once did. But the things that I am involved in keep me alert and uplifted. That's a good thing.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. Tell me how important is your work at the juvenile detention center?

Betty Burton Groce: Yes, I'm the grandmother figure there. The oldest one for sure. But I believe if just one young person can learn something, gain something, change something because I'm there, it's worth it. One of the most delightful things is when I am, like, in a store or something like that. And I hear a kid say, “Hey, Miss B!”, then that sends me the message that they want to see me, and that they have made some changes in their behavior. So that's exciting for me.

Jennifer Moss: You know, as we talk about powerful women, have there been any barriers that you've encountered? As you travel along your career paths? Barriers? Perhaps as an African American woman or maybe even the difficulties of taking over - that you have your business and leaving your teaching career; those. I mean, all types of barriers. What have you faced as you strolled along?

Betty Burton Groce: Well, first of all, I have always considered myself primarily an educator. And so when I did have to leave my classroom, I was devastated. And I still try to find ways where I can be in the teaching mold. Coming in to take over our business was the biggest challenge that I've ever had in my life because it was a thriving business and my husband, my late husband of course, that was his expertise. And I had on the job training for sure. And depended heavily on the employees that were there. They knew their job certainly much better than I knew them. And so one of the things that I learned to do was to delegate. And I grew with them as they did their work.

Jennifer Moss: And that had to be a challenging and kind of a daunting task. The backstory is your husband passed away. And so then, you kept Wonderland Business Forms going for as many years as you could, and that has to have had its own little set of challenges in your life because you're trying to continue on a legacy of something that, you know, that wasn’t your territory, really.

Betty Burton Groce: Yes, I would always say I'm not into numbers and fine print. I was more, much more creative. I think I still am very creative. And as I would tell my young children to use their imagination to move forward in their young lives, I did come up with some serious obstacles and it had to do primarily with being a black woman in a white man's world. Some people were very subtle in their kinds of discrimination towards me. Some were very obvious. And I will always remember going to one of the larger corporations and how - and with a gentleman who worked for our company who was a middle-aged white guy. And so we were sitting in the chairs, and the purchaser that we were meeting with actually turned his swivel chair, and I saw his back the entire time we were there.

Jennifer Moss: So the owner and he was talking to the other person.

Betty Burton Groce: Yes, and the salesperson saying, “Actually, Betty is the owner.” But that was probably the most difficult. One of the most difficult experiences that I had. Another thing. I was at a meeting with women, and we were talking about all the things that we can do in a collaborative way to move forward. This was very much during the time that women and people of color were getting the push to move forward. And this one young lady said, of course, like everyone here, “I have a mentor”, and it occurred to me that I did not have a mentor, would not have a mentor. The person who could help me could barely talk at that point. And when I tried to share that with the other women, they were just astounded that that was my dilemma. And in a town, in an area like West Michigan.

Jennifer Moss: So no one else understood that or could?

Betty Burton Groce: Exactly.

Jennifer Moss: Could fathom that that was what was happening. So as you move forward, though in that, how did you persevere? Because that's, you know, in powerful women, we look to other women - that's that the whole goal of this is to, you know, empowering and encouraging. You made it through and the business did do well for a period of time. And so, how did you persevere and stand up in all of that?

Betty Burton Groce: I think it was just my basic character and personality from being a young person growing up in a large family up north, and my mom and my dad always telling us we are not quitters. We have to keep moving forward. And so, I didn't really have the notion that I could stop or say, “I give up,” or any of those things because that was not part of my DNA. And I - because I think being in education for so long, I was able to use my skills in creativity, my skills in management, organizational things, and depending on those that I worked with, and it was not easy, but I made it through. I learned early on that I do have the ability to network and to make connections. And that also was a big plus for me in the business.

Jennifer Moss: And that you don't take that lightly because that part of that networking and being able to stand allowed you to win that wasn't it, the Michigan Foundation-?

Betty Burton Groce: Michigan Women’s Foundation Award-

Jennifer Moss: Which is huge, because you told me that you are amongst a crowd of people- tell me some of the people that also got that award that year.

Betty Burton Groce: Well, I always remember Esther Berry who was Barry Gordy's sister, and she is the one who created Motown; the Museum. And I just read in the paper last week that she's being inducted into Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. So that's a biggie. I also - getting the award that year was Florine Marks who is one of the original owners of Weight Watchers and helped to develop that program nationwide. And I was just totally overwhelmed and impressed with her, and there were 2 other women from Grand Rapids as well. Now understand, this was back in 1994 I believe, so, I'm kind of jogging my-

Jennifer Moss: That's okay, but still it's quite an accomplishment. And so you're amongst these women and other women who are doing great things in. And that's a huge award, a huge accomplishment. And as we look at that, you know, we do face those obstacles as we've been talking about. Was has it also taken, though, for you to become comfortable to find your own voice; kind of to own it? To just say, you know what, I'm comfortable in my own skin and I would imagine through all, as you've been through it; Wonderland Business Forms, teaching, and then all of your multiple public service events, how did you get comfortable in your own skin? Cause, you know, so many people stand, you stand your ground in the and you've been a networker.

Betty Burton Groce: That's true. Well, I would again, go back to my childhood growing up in northern Michigan, and we learned to get along with a lot of folks who do not look like me. So, we understood that we not only play a role, but we also find ourselves that way. And I think that's what happened with me. The principles and standards and values that I was raised with, I have maintained throughout my life. And that has helped me to understand parameters, and sometimes barriers and obstacles and how to maneuver in a positive way. And that's what has helped me. I think mostly be my own person. I definitely know who I am. And not ever trying to be like someone else.

Jennifer Moss: You also have something kind of exciting going on in your life right now as it relates to that personal history. And you're - you're raising up north, your home in Manistee, Michigan. That's going to be designated as a historical site. That's kind of exciting - we’ve got a lot of things going on up there as they kind of document that history. Why is that? Why did they pick your home?

Betty Burton Groce: Well, first of all, the house was built in 1868. And we were told that it was the town brothel; that the only hotel in town was immediately across the street from our home which still exists today. And my dad and mom bought that house in 1932. They were the first property owners in Manistee - actually, in Manistee County, who were, then, negros. So that was very special and my dad kind of grew the house - as our family grew in number because there were 10 children there in this little house and we have kept the home, because it is so special to us. And now because of some of the uniqueness, my parents being the first of all, the first black family to live in Manistee. And actually, we were the only black family for almost 50 years before anybody else moved in there. So that in itself was one of the uniquenesses of it and my parents, little by little, because of their standards and values, actually changed the community just a little bit at a time. So those things-

Jennifer Moss: Everyone knew the Smiths, right? Everyone knew the name Smith.

Betty Burton Groce: Yes, everyone knew the Smiths. And so hopefully soon there will be a marker - historical marker in front of our home which is being worked on now, and we are working with Eastern Michigan University where we have a foundation there to do some of the making permanent the authenticity of our home and putting values and some of the things that are still there and so forth. So yes, we're the house at the bottom of two hills and the only one on the block.

Jennifer Moss: Oh, wow. So that's very exciting. And so we talk about work with universities. You also right here at Grand Valley are a distinguished alum. And you also have a scholarship as we talked about your late husband in his name here at Grand Valley State University, correct?

Betty Burton Groce: That's correct. I actually went back to school then, I was a non-traditional student. I think 1977. And I was married with 3 children. So that was unusual, and was proud to graduate in the first graduate class in the School of Education at Grand Valley.

Jennifer Moss: That’s amazing.

Betty Burton Groce: There were, I think-

Jennifer Moss: The first class.

Betty Burton Groce: Yes, of the graduate school. Then my late husband and the President, Don; Arend Lubbers were very good friends. As a matter of fact, Don Lubbers is one of the first public institutions that said to my husband, “We’ll do business with you.” And Grand Valley was a wonderful customer vine; all their business forms and print solutions from Wonderland Business Forms. And it was his idea and mine that we start a scholarship at Grand Valley that was primarily for African American students, and he said, “I want it to be for students who are just like me. Smart, but C plus.” And so that scholarship is there. We are so proud of the fact that right now, over 200 students have received that scholarship-

Jennifer Moss: It’s an endowment, too.

Betty Burton Groce: It’s endowed, so it will be there forever long after we're gone. Yeah. Proud of that as well.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. So I know you worked on with a lot of people throughout the years and on boards and in other places. What are some of the leadership traits that you like to see as you, you know, work with those as you're on your journey and have worked with those other folks?

Betty Burton Groce: For me, in a leadership role is to recognize the talents and achievements and abilities of the folks that I'm working with, and often enough we see someone who says, “I'm so tired I have to do everything”, you know, well I recognize that I don't have to do everything; that there are other people who have many of the same capabilities. And if I allow them to go ahead and do their task with expectations that they will do the very best they can, it usually does happen that way. And I think that's a quality that is so important in leadership. It's not about, you know, “I’m in charge, so do it this way.” I can be a thought leader. I can be the person who synergizes a group, but I don't have to run everything. So that's important to me.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. So tell us to know some of the things that you like to do. There's a couple of points. You know, I would always ask people, like, “What do you like to do for fun?”, and you've already told me one of the things that you think is fun - is kind of your educational role that you continue - is teaching young people etiquette.

Betty Burton Groce: Oh, love it. And up until 2 weeks ago, I would always say to the young people as we begin, “And if the Queen invites you for dinner, you will have to know how to maneuver it.” 37 pieces of silverware and plates and cups and so forth. But now I don't know if the King is going to invite anybody or not, but that's the reality. Yes, I teach dining etiquette to kids is one of the things that I love doing. I do it mostly with teenagers; sometimes with college-age students. I've done it right here at Grand Valley with incoming students. It's amazing to me how many of them don't know how to set a table. And even though we've got all these fast forward things going on in our lives, in the world, I still think that some things are important to have those basic skills, especially when it comes to eating as part of a group. At a banquet, what - or if the mayor invites you for dinner? Years ago, I received a phone call from a young lady who had been invited to a luncheon. I believe it was with the mayor and she called me up and she said, “Mrs. Burton, I knew which fork to use.”

Jennifer Moss: That’s exciting.

Betty Burton Groce: And that was in itself very, very exciting to me and just a fun activity. The things that we can do at home with our families. The other thing I believe about dining etiquette is that it allows us to spend time actually talking with others, and that togetherness that comes with that kind of fellowship I think is particularly unique and often enough depending on the audience or the group that I'm with, I should say, who may practice the Christian religion, I always remind them that every place that Jesus went, they ate. There was food, and he served food. And so, we have to know how to do fellowship with food as well.

Jennifer Moss: Yeah, that's something very important to you. Quickly, I do want to touch on another thing that you love to do. And that's working with a group that - it's grandparents, raising grandchildren.

Betty Burton Groce: Yes.

Jennifer Moss: Just give me a little bit on that. Before we move on.

Betty Burton Groce: Okay, well, right now, we grandparents raising grandchildren are not meeting. We, during covid, Everything kind of had to dissolve. And we've not been back in the formal sort of sort of way. There are in the state of Michigan, thousands and thousands of grandparents who are raising their grandchildren for whatever reason. And so, we've already had our turn one time, here we are and it again. But at a different age and age in our own lives. And of course, as everyone knows, children have changed. And so we have challenges that are unbelievable, but also, one of the things that I do with the grandparents is help them with resources. I'm not the expert on how to do, but I certainly can find all the resources that we need to be as effective as we can with our grandchildren.

Jennifer Moss: That’s connection and networking; that expertise that you have as well. So tell me, what's a word that you get for folks who are people that you know and love or just an encouraging word? You know, we go through so much in this world today. But what’s an encouraging word or model that you have that you like to use to encourage others?

Betty Burton Groce: Well, there's a couple things. But in Matthew 35 talks about I was hungry, and you fed me. I needed clothes, and you clothed me. I needed a place to live, and you let me stay. And that's always been important to me, as well as having been raised very United Methodist with our founder John Wesley, he said, “Our goal is to do all we can, for whomever we can, by any way that we can, and as often as we can.” So those 2 things are important to me. But as a young child, my mother always told me, “You've got to reach out; you've got to step out,” because I would be leery about the unknown sometimes. And she said to me, “You've got to be like the turtle,” in order to move forward you’ve gotta stick your neck out. You have to take some cautionary risk. You've got to get out there and explore and find out what's next in the world. And because of that, I remember distinctly at age 8, my mother gave me this turtle that I think it was soft, but now it's petrified and it has a broken neck, but I still have it.

Jennifer Moss: Still have it. And it's your signature, because you always have a turtle on.

Betty Burton Groce: Exactly, because with my late husband, when we found out that if he was going to live, he would have to have a heart transplant, and he had gone to the doctor alone, which was unusual. We were at Mayo Clinic, and he came back to the hotel room and he handed me a turtle. A brass turtle, which I still have. And he said, “Remember what your mom said. You've got to keep moving forward.” And at the family hour after he passed away, one of my dearest friends came and pinned a turtle on my shoulder. She said that, “Remember what your mom said. Remember what your husband said. You're going to have to keep moving forward even in these difficult times.” And today I have a wonderful husband, and he did not know the story of why I have the turtles and why they're so important to me. But his first gift to me was a turtle.

Jennifer Moss: That’s amazing.

Jennifer Moss: That is just amazing and you continue to inspire and encourage others and encourage them to stick their necks out too. And we so appreciate that. So Betty Burton Groce, I really enjoyed this conversation today. Thank you for joining us.

Betty Burton Groce: Thank you.

Jennifer Moss: We appreciate having you on Powerful Women: Let's Talk and thank you for joining us for another edition of Powerful Women: Let's Talk. We'll see you next time.

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>> Produced by women, about women, these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are, and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women: Let’s Talk? Get additional interviews at wgvu.org or wherever you get your podcast. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.

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Jennifer is an award winning broadcast news journalist with more than two decades of professional television news experience including the nation's fifth largest news market. She's worked as both news reporter and news anchor for television and radio in markets from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo all the way to San Francisco, California.
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