Betty Wagner Spandikow: A Celebration of Life
September 1923 — October 2008
From New Beginnings, Vol. 25 No. 5, 2008, pp. 8-9
Betty Wagner Spandikow, co-Founder of La Leche League International and resident of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, USA, passed away on Sunday October 26, 2008 at the age of 85.
Betty was born to John and Valiree Redmond in 1923. Her parents had no inkling that their baby girl would one day be the Executive Director of an international organization recognized as the leading authority on breastfeeding, and what is more, that it would reverse a major societal trend and change baby-feeding practices around the world.
Raised in the Chicago area, Betty was the only girl in the family of four children. She excelled in mathematics and after high school graduation she worked at Continental Bank. After she married, she was employed at Montgomery Wards in the accounting department while her husband was away at war.
Betty married Robert Wagner in 1942 and in 1943 gave birth to the first of seven children. Unlike many women of her time, Betty received practical information and support for breastfeeding from her own mother.
Betty was a busy full-time mother and also enjoyed working with the other young mothers in the Altar and Rosary Society at St. Gertrude's Church. Betty became friends with Mary Ann Cahill, who went to the same church and had similar opinions about child care and family life. When Betty was invited to be a part of the group that was being organized to help breastfeeding mothers, she was eager to join. And so La Leche League was born.
From 1956 until 1963, the grassroots organization of La Leche League International flourished around the seven families' kitchen tables. Between family activities, the seven Founders met regularly to handle business and pool their ideas on interesting and unusual breastfeeding questions. Betty was the Treasurer and took over the business aspects of the fledgling organization.
With all seven homes filled to bursting with correspondence, books, and files, it finally became evident in March of 1963 that an official office was necessary. Now, in addition to the title of Treasurer, Betty became Business Manager and eventually Executive Director, a title she held for 19 years until she retired.
During these years, with the organization facing explosive growth, Betty continued to manage the business end of La Leche League as well as the planning. Betty's ideas about work teams and home offices were also far ahead of their time. It was the sum of these innovations that played a role in enabling the organization, made up mainly of mothers, to grow and be effective in a highly structured business world.
Betty retired as Executive Director of La Leche League at the age 70. Her husband Robert had died in 1975. When she retired, she took up square dancing, where she met her second husband, Paul Spandikow, a widower. They were married in 1993. Paul and his wife raised seven children as did Betty and Bob, so the two families have a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Betty was a sought-after speaker who discussed breastfeeding and parenting at conferences throughout the US and in countries such as Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Canada, and El Salvador. She also spoke at the United Nations. She, along with the six other LLLI co-Founders, is one of the authors of the popular book, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, which has sold over two million copies.
Betty is preceded in death by her first husband, Robert Wagner, and children Gail Gratzianna, Wayne Wagner, Mary Wright, and grandson Andrew Wright. Betty is survived by second husband, Paul, and children, Robert Wagner (Pam), Peggy Dowd Henderson (Ric), Dorothy Rasmussen, and Helen Huntley (Brian Bleess); 26 grandchildren; and 22 great-grandchildren.
A memorial for Betty Wagner Spandikow is available on the LLLI Web site at www.llli.org/betty.html
My Memories of Betty
Betty was an Executive Director who developed business practices that were way ahead of their time. She had flex time, before there was a name for it, she had monthly parties to celebrate the birthdays of employees, and holidays were a time for families. The sounds of children and happy baby noises could often be heard coming from various offices. I was a volunteer, but living an ocean away from my own family in England. I would so look forward to visiting the LLLI office. Betty had nurtured a very warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Betty's best attribute was her incredible ability to listen respectfully, get to the heart of the matter, and understand the situation from several angles. She was wise and had the rare ability to hear all sides of a problem or situation, and reflect caring and concern for both parties. Eventually both sides of an issue would come away as winners. I often smile when I think of one time when there had been some ongoing disagreements between Directors of the different Divisions, and Betty had brought chocolate and water pistols to the Board Room so that we could argue our different points in a way that added an element of fun. I don't recall us using the water pistols, but the chocolate sure helped!
When people in her employ encountered setbacks and family upheavals, Betty had a wonderful way of offering comfort, sage words of advice, and hope to families that were suffering. I never heard her speak a negative word about anyone as I think she lived by the rule that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it.
Though she was treated as a famous person when she traveled all over the country and the world (she had rock star status in the La Leche League world!), she was always gracious and humble. Above all, no matter how she felt or what was going on in her life, you could count on being warmed by her beautiful smile. As I think of Betty, I picture her with that wonderful smile, arms open, just ready to give one of her genuinely warm hugs.
Sue Huml, IL USA