On a High Note:
Dr. Betty Siegel and the Arts
By Cheryl Anderson Brown
In a Depression-era coal-mining town, one bright beacon signaled a glorious vision of what life could be. Amidst the poverty and despair of those dark days, people found escape within the welcoming walls of the local movie house where Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart brought comedies, dramas, musicals and adventures to life. Between the two films shown, Vera Hogg Lentz played piano while her two young daughters absorbed the magic of music and cinema.
Seventy years later, those moments in Kentucky are as real to Betty Faye Lentz, now better known as Dr. Betty L. Siegel, the outgoing president of Kennesaw State University, as if they were yesterday. They were defining moments that truly influenced the path she ultimately followed.
“The movies were my window to the world in those days,” she says. It was a world struggling with major economic crisis and steadily marching toward war, but in the Lentz home, there was harmony even if there was not always prosperity.
“We were always encouraged to really like fine things whether we had money or not; and, when we did have the money for it, it was wonderful.”
Dr. Siegel’s parents encouraged their children to love books and learning, music and dance. “When I went away to college, it wasn’t like I had never seen a ballet or heard a symphony.”
But it was at college that she fell in love with the theater. Anyone who has ever heard her present a speech would not be surprised to learn that she was an avid thespian, performing in productions at both Cumberland College and at Wake Forest University. While working on her master’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she became involved with Carolina Playmakers, where she worked with Andy Griffith. “I became fascinated by the camaraderie that comes from being in the theater—the green room, the after-the-show activities. I loved it!”
While her academic studies focused on child psychology and education, the arts were always her avocation. During two years of post-doctoral studies at Indiana University, she was introduced the world of opera.
“My first day there, I went to the opera. I went to the opera every time it
After securing her first teaching job at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, N.C., Dr. Siegel indulged in getaways to New York City, where she and her friends would see seven or eight shows in just four days.
That intense love for the arts has never waned. If anything, it has been enhanced over the years by her husband, Dr. Joel Siegel, who has accompanied Dr. Siegel to innumerable concerts, plays, performances and art galleries. Together, they raised their sons, David and Michael, to be arts supporters.
“Joel and I made it a practice in our family, wherever we were traveling, to visit the art museums and we would always buy a print of work from the exhibitions. We have a wonderful collection of art posters stacked up against the wall without enough room to hang them. And, they are all of great art that we have actually seen.”
When Betty Siegel was selected to head the then Kennesaw Junior College in 1981, she brought her deep and abiding love for the arts to the tiny campus, which, at the time, housed only a small music department and an art department. As the junior college skyrocketed to national and international recognition under her leadership, eventually earning state university status in 1996, she encouraged the art and music faculty to continually strive for more students, more degree programs and more connections between the campus and the community.
“Betty Siegel’s support for the arts far exceeded any expectations we might have had,” says Joseph Meeks, Dean of the KSU College of the Arts, who was already an established member of the faculty when Dr. Siegel assumed the presidency. “We cannot talk about the incredible success we have had in the arts without paying homage to her visionary leadership and her consistent, ongoing support.”
In 1997, that vision and leadership led to “The Year of the Arts,” a yearlong celebration that permeated the entire campus. Dr. Siegel adapted the idea from a similar program at Wake Forest, where she served on the advisory board. Faculty, staff and students presented more than 60 events in that year, highlighting the impact the arts can have on a college campus and in the community.
“That led us to understand that we were a reservoir of the arts that would be welcomed by the communities we serve,” Dr. Siegel says. “In that year, I think we built a milieu in which a college for the arts could grow.”
Just a year later, the Department of Music, the Department of the Visual Arts and the newly formed Department of Theatre were separated from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences to form a new School of the Arts, now known as the College of the Arts.
“It was a moment of faith and courage,” Dean Meeks says. “A lot of people really thought the arts could not survive on their own. It was also a visionary moment—to take the visual and performing arts and house them together.” On most campuses, the various arts disciplines are housed under a broader humanities umbrella or they exist in discipline-specific silos. “Dr. Siegel and I felt it was important to say, from the very beginning, that all of the arts are integrated, that they reflect a powerful interconnection among people and that they enhance each other.”
Throughout the years, Dr. Siegel’s support for the arts at Kennesaw State has taken many forms, from championing construction of new arts facilities and enhancing budgets to interacting with students in the classroom to taking the stage herself in one particularly memorable performance of “Lincoln Portrait.”
In 2003, Peter Witte, director of the KSU Wind Ensemble, invited Dr. Siegel to narrate Aaron Copland’s classic homage to President Lincoln. The part of the narrator had been most famously performed by no less than James Earl Jones. As if that didn’t make the prospect seem terrifying enough for Dr. Siegel, she had never before performed with a musical ensemble. Many years of piano lessons when she was younger seemed, to her, like scant preparation for the performance. She agreed, but she was filled with an anxiety so overwhelming that it triggered a nosebleed just before she took the stage.
But, when she looks back on that evening now, she remembers it as one of the greatest experiences of her life. “Peter was so wonderful. He worked with me to help me understand the voice as an instrument, to help me know how to collaborate with the ensemble. Before then, I had only seen a director from the audience. That night, I could see him working and I finally really appreciated what a symphony director does. It was incredible.”
On several occasions, Dr. Siegel paid “day in the life” visits to the various KSU deans, but her visits to the College of the Arts were always very experiential. “I still have the apple I drew in the first art class I visited.”
These visits allowed her to interact with the students, to see how they learn and how they create. “I don’t feel a compulsion to create art myself,” she says, “but I feel like you need someone like me to appreciate it. I love what artists do.”
As she exits the presidential office, Dr. Siegel is by no means packing away her passion for the arts. Perhaps instead of the lightning trips to “pig out” on Broadway shows in New York and East End productions in London, Betty and Joel Siegel will be able to take more leisurely sojourns, while continuing to build their collection of art posters.
“The arts will always be a part of my life; they have to be. I can never get enough. One of the things I have discovered about the arts is that the more arts you enjoy, the more you enjoy