Betsy Palmer Jenkins     Photo courtesy of Fleetwood-Jourdain

 “Life is a series of experiences, each of which makes us bigger, though sometimes it’s hard to realize this.”  – Henry Ford

Betsy Jenkins may not have appreciated the growth value of setbacks when, in 1974, she lost her job at Illinois Bell. But that led her to come to work for the City of Evanston, where today she manages the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, the Evanston Ecology Center and the Mason Park Drop-In program.

Her journey from telephone operator to program manager has been a long and winding one, but it has always wound its way through Evanston. Ms. Jenkins is a lifelong native with City roots that go back generations. Her grandparents came to Evanston in the 1920s from South Carolina and Virginia. Her mother, Alice Palmer, was a nurse who worked with Elizabeth Hill, the legendary African American physician who helped develop a community health system for blacks on the west side of Evanston and co-founded and was chief-of-staff at Community Hospital. Her father, Calvin Palmer, ran a messenger service business in Chicago.

Growing up, Ms. Jenkins lived on Evanston’s West Side and attended Noyes, Skiles and Evanston Township High schools. She had a circle of good friends – many of whom she is still close with – and they spent a lot of time roller skating, biking and swimming at the Emerson Street YMCA. She was, and is, an avid church-goer.

Says her longtime friend, Marsha Alberty, of those days: “We had a lot of the same interests – boys and clothes and talking on the phone.” She describes their relationship as “sisterly” and says they have “been there for each other.”

In 1970 she married Willie Jenkins, whom she had met in high school. Mr. Jenkins worked as a maintenance employee at Northwestern University and retired in 2009 after 25 years. (He passed away in June.) The couple’s daughters are Nicole, an insurance underwriter who lives in Chicago, and Kim, a lawyer who formerly worked at Fleetwood.

Ms. Jenkins’ first job out of school was telephone operator for Illinois Bell. Over two decades she assumed increasingly responsible roles as technician and manager. After 24 years she was downsized from her job, but that was a blessing in disguise, she says, as it launched her career with the City. Shortly thereafter she started work as a secretary for District 65. Within two years she was program supervisor at Fleetwood-Jourdain, responsible for the bowling program. Five years later she became program manager, in charge of the after-school and children’s programs. In 2004 she became center manager.

Ms. Jenkins is currently responsible for 30 employees, – 20 at Fleetwood-Jourdain, eight at the Ecology Center and two at Mason Park. At Fleetwood she can be seen in the afternoons supervising the busy after-school program, often comforting a crying child or encouraging a noisy one to get to work on his homework. Under her watch, the after-school program has grown to more than 80 children.

Doug Gaynor, director of Evanston Parks, Recreation and Community Services, has only good things to say about her. “I have known Betsy 14 years, and she is one of my outstanding managers and people. She is loved by everyone.” Mr. Gaynor pointed out that as cutbacks have thinned the City’s ranks, Ms. Jenkins has stepped up to assume more and more responsibility. “She never says no,” he says. 

Ms. Alberty says her friend Ms. Jenkins has many great qualities that have helped her excel in her supervisory roles. “She’s warm, caring, forthright, honest and driven. She wants only the best for her family and friends, and especially for the kids in her program. She truly wants them to excel. She’s stern but fair; she makes those kids toe the line.”

Adds daughter Kim: “She makes sure the children are receiving everything they need.”

Another old Evanston friend is Doris Powell, who was in the same Girl Scout troop with Ms. Jenkins and formed a Motown-style singing group with her for a school talent show. “We brought down the house with the Marvelettes’ ‘Don’t Mess With Bill,’” she recalls with a laugh. Of Ms. Jenkins she says, “She’s the kind of person who really cares about what’s going on in your life and is there to help. When we were young, she kept us on the straight and narrow. And now she does the same for Evanston. She’s a pillar in this community.”

Pillar is one symbol; Mr. Gaynor, her supervisor, suggests another. “Picture a swan floating along the lake, looking very graceful and serene, getting from place to place,” he says. “Under water the swan is paddling like crazy. You see the movement, but you never see the ripple. That’s Betsy.”