Scenes from an Interview
Celebrating a 100 years of Life, Love and Happiness
by Gus Mollasis
She’s graced our world for 100 years, and our community for several decades. And because of this, both are a better place. Raised during the depression, she developed a positive attitude that is both her edge and her greatest weapon as she battles to make the world a much more meaningful and compassionate place. It is this contagious attitude that can disarm even the most cynical amongst us to let down our guard as we open up our heart a little bit more.
But why? The answer is clear; to Betty Schoenbaum, our greatest duty is to give – of ourselves, to others, for the good of others. If that’s her philosophy, then this is her slogan and words that she lives by: “The joy of giving is the joy of living.” Give. It’s a beautiful four-letter word that when placed at the helm of this lady, who in pounds weighs no more than her gifted age, takes on new meaning, weight and power. There is something special and spiritual about this woman; once touched by her, especially if it’s in the form of hug, you will never be the same. During her youth spent in Dayton, Ohio, she nabbed the big man on campus, an All-American football player from Ohio State, her real life “Big Boy” beau, who was then on his way to creating one of the biggest restaurant chains in American history – Shoney’s. Like a great mate, she always stood by her man, even helping her Alex name the chain.
When you are with Betty Schoenbaum, you feel that all things are possible, and you notice the little things a little more, even if it’s from her breathtaking penthouse view overlooking the beautiful Sarasota Bayfront. And as you look out the window with Betty, you can’t help but be taken in by her view and vison of the world and all things big and small. You feel like you can see and smell a blade of grass on the ground that’s hundreds of yards below. While with her, you have the ability to dream, big cloud-like dreams, yet be grounded by the reality of the real world in which we live.
In Betty’s world, life is built between two important pillars. One being a gracious heart and giving nature that willingly gives to the world. The second, and her most important part of her legacy, is her family. She will be the first to tell you as she looks proudly at a photo of a family gathering, filled with sons, daughters, sons and daughters-in law, grandchildren, great grandchildren and anyone else lucky enough to be in her clan, that none of this would have happened if she didn’t marry Alex Schoenbaum. No, none of that would have been possible. What a loss that would have been. And what a loss it would have been had Betty not graced the planet with her beautiful and giving spirit.
She will tell you how lucky and blessed she has been in her life. When she says it, you believe every word, because you feel it in your heart. Heart-to-heart. It is something she lives by. A little hug is a gift that she gives anyone blessed enough to be in her company. That little hug, one more example of her giving.
As a small child, she learned the great lesson of giving from her poor Grandma Fanny Goldman as she placed spare coins in a tin box to buy land in Israel. As an adult, she watched her husband raise and give away millions to worthy causes close to his heart. After Alex passed away, she took his torch and kept his spirit alive by continuing to give to his causes, while finding some of her own.
As she continues to forge her own path, her criteria for giving have been simple. If it helps people go further in education, treasure the arts, value their environment, if it is just good for the planet and she is passionate about it, then she will do what comes naturally to her. She will give. And because she does, the world is a better place, because she herself is a gift that keeps giving.
If there is one lesson to be learned from her generosity it is this: “Why wait until you are gone to give away what you have been fortunate to earn? Give while you are living so that you see all the good that your giving does while you are alive.” It’s this philosophy that has helped build an educational complex and center that benefits Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Think about that a minute. It’s this philosophy that’s helped thousands of students with scholarships to earn degrees and pursue their life’s goals and dreams.
Her giving knows no bounds and can be felt and seen in the three places that she has called home in her blessed life: her revered birthplace of Dayton, Ohio; her adopted home of Charleston, West Virginia; and her final beloved home on this planet, Sarasota. All three places have benefited immeasurably by her large and giving heart. Her fourth home, in essence, a home to all the Jews of the world, Israel, has felt her presence and generous spirit in ways best measured in biblical and soulful terms that connect her to a heritage and traditions best understood by God.
Betty Schoenbaum comes from another time and place. A simpler, more innocent time. A time when a handshake meant something. A time when families sat down at the table and talked to each other – actually talked to each other without a text, a tweet or a smart phone interrupting the flow of conversation. A time not only to dream the American dream, but a time when you worked hard together to accomplish it. A time when we were grateful for all the good times. And finally, a time to take the time to give something back to those less fortunate, because it was not only the right thing to do, but also because it felt so darn good. This is the time that Betty Schoenbaum comes from.
As she’s taken the paddleboat down the river in her life, she has always had time to sit and listen to someone and see if she could help make his or her world a little bit better. Somewhere in another time and place, I can see an old All-American football player looking down and saying, “Betty, you’ve done good.”
When I asked her what her life has been like; what it felt like to spend time with her beloved family; or give a scholarship away to someone and have it really change their life; or provide the underprivileged with food or shelter, while giving them some hope, she looked at me with that one in a million saintly smile, and uttered, “Ineffable joy. That is joy that’s beyond description.”
As her biographer this past year, I have been blessed with the opportunity to sit down many times with this great lady and listen to her life story.
Here are some selected scenes from our interviews. In them, I have learned many life lessons that include the importance of gratitude and, of course, giving. But more than anything, I was provided with ineffable joy, joy well beyond belief, just by sharing some time with this grand lady.
Thank you sweet Betty and Happy 100th Birthday!
With gratitude, love and with one giant hug – heart to heart,
Who taught you the importance of giving?
My maternal grandmother Fanny Katzen Goldman, who was the daughter of a rabbi. She knew Hebrew, which was unusual because they never taught a girl Hebrew in the Jewish faith.
Once in America, my grandfather Goldman was killed while he was going to the bank. Somebody held him up, took his money and tragically shot and killed him when he was 32 years old. This left my grandmother a widow and pregnant with her fourth child. My mother, Sarah, had already been born by this time. So sadly my mother’s father was killed, my grandmother was left with what would soon be four children.
She had a brother in Cincinnati who had a basement and he let her use the basement for her family. She went to work in cigar box factory. After my grandfather was killed, she married another man who was from Dayton.
Everyday, religiously, she went over to the synagogue and stood out in the hall, because women were not allowed to be in the same area where the men were praying. Twice a day she prayed. In Hebrew it’s called davening. She davened twice a day in the hall while the men were in the room, twice a day for the rest of her life.
Grandma Fanny Goldman. She is the one who taught me to give.
Grandma Fanny Goldman. She is the one who taught me to give. She was a beautiful woman. She had little tin tea boxes. They were called Sweet Touch Nee Tea and they had little gold straps like trunks. She would cut a slit in the top, and as poor as she was, my grandmother always put money in there every Friday night. It was a nickel or a dime or a penny, but money always went into those three boxes.
When I was five years old, I said to her, ‘Grandma what do you do with all that money that you put in there?’ She said, ‘I’m saving money to buy land in Palestine (Israel).’
Grandma Goldman was so kind. She taught me the importance of giving.
Tell me about your parents.
When my daddy went to get his bicycles fixed at age ten, he would go down to Lorraine Avenue and go to the Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop. The Wright Brothers came from Dayton.
Daddy was a very hard worker. He would get up at four o’clock in the morning and be down at the chicken plant, the Joe O. Frank Company, named after my grandfather.
My mother just adored my father. When he came home from work she wouldn’t let him come in the front door because he’d been in the plant where they had been killing the chickens. The floors were wet because they had to be cleaning them all the time. So he had to come around the side of the house and pass by the kitchen window where my mother would hear him whistling. He’d yell to my mother, whose name was Sarah, but my father called her “Sorky.” He’d say, “There’s my Sorky.”
You could just see the happiness in my mother’s eyes.
I just loved the love that they had for each other and for us. It was important to see that as a child. All my brothers and sisters were wonderful people. It made me feel secure as a child. They always put us children first.
Tell us about some of your fondest memories growing up at your summer cottage.
Our wonderful cottage at Crystal Lake. We lived near a farm where a man let us milk the cows, ride the tractors and smell that wonderful new-mowed hay. We had a row boat and a canoe on the lake. It was a clear spring-fed lake that you could see all the way to the bottom. You could see the water bubbling up and see the fish way down there. I grew up and was raised in a veritable heaven. It was paradise. Whenever I have an EKG and the nurses tell me to be quiet and relax, I think of Crystal Lake.
The Fourth of July at the cottage was so special. Mother would buy lots of watermelons, hot dogs, corn on the cob and potato salad and we would have a picnic every Fourth of July. I loved it. And we didn’t serve the watermelon on plates, we would just eat it over the grass. What a life.
What a life.
On the lake, we’d drop our lines every night down at the club house. In the morning we couldn’t wait to see what we caught. One day we caught a seven pound turtle. And we had turtle soup that night. I could never bait the hook. Dad had to do it for me. I couldn’t put the worm or fish or crawfish on the hook.
Cottage life. Telling these stories about the cottage, I felt like I was there. It takes me back to the good old days. A simpler life. It really was. I’ve got a diary. And if you read that diary, I wrote it at 15 years old. It was my confirmation year. And in it I say, ‘I had a date tonight. He’s swell.’ (Laughs) At 14 or 15, I shouldn’t use that word. ‘I went out with a boy tonight, he was so ugly, if he ever asks me out again I’ll never go out with him.’ (Laughs) I was honest. I was either playing bridge, dancing, or going out to the cottage, or going to my music lessons all through my diary.
Those were special days. Especially those days at the cottage, at Crystal Lake, during the summer. I can still smell the fresh mowed grass.
You loved dancing as a child and young lady. What has dancing done for you in your life?
What dancing did for me was give me one of the greatest things in my life. It gave me confidence. I could get up in front of an audience and speak to them without a note in front of me, and give all my heart to what I was saying. When you don’t have to look at a piece of paper and speak from the heart, the words might not be as proper as they could have been had I written them down, but it came from the heart. And in subsequent years in every one of my speeches, I’ve been able to influence other people to give because what I said came from the heart. Dancing gave me poise and confidence. It helped me so that I was not scared to get up a say what I had to say. I was blessed. I was blessed all my life. The ability to dance, especially in my youth, when I danced so much, has had healthy benefits that I reap now.
Tell me about the early days at Ohio State University when you first met Alex Schoenbaum.
I met Alex my first year and through our second year we were friends, strictly friends, nothing. Then eventually we would do a little necking. That was kissing. We called it necking. We always necked because it wasn’t safe to have sex back then. And necking is from the neck up. That’s necking. From the neck up. (Smiles) He would walk me around the corner, buy me a Coke for a nickel and we’d sit and talk about his career and my career. His football career and my dancing.
What was your role in the naming Shoney’s, the restaurant chain founded by your husband?
We had a contest to name the restaurant and we got thousands of entries. I said, ‘We’re going to call it Shoney’s.’ He said, ‘Why would I call it Shoney’s?’ I said, ‘they call your daddy Shoney, right? And they call you Shoney? After you get all these names from the contest, you’ll find that is the name.’ So I actually picked the name out. The prize for naming it was new Lincoln car. To avoid a conflict of interest, I didn’t win the Lincoln. But one man who did send in SCHOENY’S did win. So we gave it to him. I remember driving that new Lincoln over to give it away to that man who lived in an apartment building.
Tell me about the importance of family.
My family is everything to me. I have often said this about my in- laws, my two daughters-in-law and my son-in-law: “If I stand in a circle and we hold hands, I can feel the love going from one hand to another all the way around the circle.” I am really blessed to have that and to be loved. I love them because they put up with my children. You know your children’s faults. God bless them all. (Laughs) I don’t play favorites. If they have a disagreement they don’t get involved in front of me. I don’t see that. I’m a Libra. Libras are fair. We are balanced. I don’t take sides. I’ve found it best to ‘just keep your mouth shut.’
My family is everything to me.
You and your husband Alex were kindred spirits when it came to philanthropy.
Regarding philanthropy and a need to act, there are a lot of people who have the ability to give. They really do. There’s a lot of wonderful giving in this community of Sarasota. Did you know that Sarasota County is the most giving county per capita in the United States? I say that Sarasota County is the county with the heart on it.
The restaurant business gave us the means to go and give. My husband was very giving. He would also get involved and raise money. In fact, he raised $31 million for The Salvation Army over a five-year period.
My husband was not religious. His religion was giving. He respected what you believed in and he wanted you to respect what he believed in. He didn’t want you to try to change him.
At times he was challenged and people would say, ‘Why would a Jewish man raise that kind of money for The Salvation Army, a Christian organization?’
Alex had an answer. He always had an answer. And his answer was in granite on the grounds of The Salvation Army on 10th Street. ‘We are all descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We are all brothers all over the world. And when my brothers are in need, when he has nowhere else to turn, he can turn to The Salvation Army.’
When Alex passed away, you really came into your own in terms of philanthropy and your ability to influence people.
I’m not the same person at all I was before Alex passed away. I didn’t know that I had some of the qualities I had until he passed and I became my own person.
I’ve said to many people, “why wait until you die to give your money away? Give while you are living to see the good that your money is doing while you are alive and to make sure that your money is used for the causes you wanted it used to for.”
I didn’t think I had this power in me to give a speech and influence people to give. When did I know I had that power? Well it took me a while. I didn’t know I had it until they asked me to speak in Palm Beach to a group of women, most of whom were all worth 10 million dollars or more. One of these groups spoke of how we pass our values to the next generation. They asked me to come and speak and I spoke. I could see that the people there were leaning over waiting for my next word. I couldn’t believe it! I had these people spellbound. Jane Pauley spoke the night before and didn’t get a standing ovation. That morning after I spoke, the first time that I ever did it, I got a standing ovation when I got finished with my spiel. It was in the morning and I had been talking all morning, so I dashed off the stage to the bathroom and nobody was in there. Two minutes later they closed the meeting and everybody was in there. I was in one of those stalls, and I was so embarrassed because they were talking about how marvelous and wonderful I was and here I was in the bathroom stall. I just stayed in that bathroom until everybody left! That was a eureka moment.
You give to so many worthy causes, especially in Sarasota. I know this an extremely unfair, but are there some organizations that hold a special place in your heart?
There are so many great causes and organizations in our wonderful community. I’m really proud of projects like Glasser-Schoenbaum. That organization is close to my heart. That’s a big one, a nonprofit with currently 19 nonprofits under one big roof, with many different buildings encompassing 60,000 square feet. The Salvation Army is there and we have a big clinic for the Health Department, a children’s clinic that covers children from zero to 18 who do not have health insurance or cash. It is a place where parents or caretakers can bring their children to get healthcare. It was set up by the wonderful Dr. Kay Glasser. My husband thought it was a good idea to have all these various agencies under one roof. Glasser-Schoenbaum makes me feel proud. It’s a mall of human services.
Another organization I’m extremely proud of is the JFCS. With JFCS, 80 percent of their clients are non-denominational and are not Jewish. That’s the slogan of Judaism – “To Heal the World.” The world is made up of many more Christians and other religions. It’s up to us to heal the world. And we heal the world. We take care of veterans, homelessness and hunger. We do all this and so much more at JFCS.
I still feel Alex’s presence, even today. Whenever I do something, I say to him, ‘I think you’ll like that, Alex,’ whenever I give a big gift to anything.
I want people to love each other as much as they hate. And forget about hatred.
Before you leave our planet, is there something yet you hope to accomplish?
As I enter the last chapters of my life, what I would love to change about the world is this: I want people to love each other as much as they hate. And forget about hatred. You know I have this love hug and I’m trying to spread it around the world. A heart-to-heart hug. It’s the best feeling in the world because you have exchanged a hug with them. That hug raises endorphins and helps your auto immune system. So I give you a gift when we hug and you give me gift when we hug. That’s what I want – people to give each other goodness instead of hatred.I have helped thousands of people. It’s given me ineffable joy. Joy beyond description. I had the heart to give somebody money and see how it helped their lives. It’s a marvelous feeling. Marvelous.
What do you think happens to all of us after we leave this place?
You mean when we die? I think there is an energy that a person has and the more energy you have the more beautiful it is and your soul and spirit prevails. I don’t know where. I believe it’s an energy and they use that energy for something else.
The good positive energy goes to one place and the negative energy goes to another place, not to one place. Look, we don’t know how we were created. We each are a miracle. Each one of us. You’re a miracle and I’m a miracle. When you see what this body can do from a little seed. We were created. Look at us. We walk. We talk. We shut our eyes. We open our mouths. We go to sleep. We bathe ourselves. We are able to have babies. We are able to do everything.
I believe in a supreme being who created us. It had to be. We couldn’t just come from a fusion of this and a fusion of that. I believe in what Einstein said, ‘God doesn’t play dice with the universe.’
Look at my heart. Who invented my heart? Do you know what your heart beats every minute? Well mine beats about 65 times a minute. I’ve got a slow heart, almost 4,000 beats an hour. That’s about 96,000 heart beats a day. Now 365 days times 96,000 times a day for almost 100 years is roughly 3,504,000,000 heartbeats. Now who could invent something like that? Only a supreme being. That’s unbelievable. We’re unbelievable.
To read more about Betty, click here.