Sep 16

How many people go to their graves without regrets? Without the inside conversation, “I wish I’d done this. I wish I’d done that.” I suspect that when Betsy Ancker-Johnson died on July 2, 2020 in Austin, Texas, at the age of 93, there were no regrets. She lived life exactly as she wanted. Fearlessly.

Imagine being told in high school you couldn’t take a particular class because you were a female. That’s exactly what happened to Ancker-Johnson. She wanted to take shop and was relegated to home economics instead. (Back in the day, home economics class taught girls how to cook, clean and sew.)

That didn’t deter Ancker-Johnson. She taught herself how to fix things. Eventually, and despite speaking only rudimentary German, she went on to earn a PhD in physics at the University of Tubingen, a top university in Germany. She followed this with a series of positions in research labs at the University of California, Berkeley, General Telephone & Electronics Corp., and Boeing before ultimately becoming the first female vice president at General Motors. Perhaps a crowning career achievement was being named assistant secretary of commerce for the U.S. government in 1973. Her area of responsibility was science and technology—unheard of at the time for a woman—and she managed 7,500 employees and an annual budget of $230 million.

Ancker-Johnson “had it both ways” in a number of other ways. She combined her career with marriage to a mathematician, with who she had two daughters and adopted two sons. She was laid off from a job because of one pregnancy. “They treated me like I had leprosy,” she said.

Despite being a scientist, she was a devout Christian her entire life, seeing no contradiction between faith and devotion to science. She likened the Big Bang Theory to the creation of the world in the Book of Genesis. While working for the federal government, she smuggled bibles into the Soviet Union.

After retirement, she continued to compete. At age 80, she traveled to Australia to swim in a masters swimming meet, placing third in the 800-meter freestyle. What a fearless marvel was Betsy!

As we go through these challenging times, it would be easy to throw in the towel and simply exist. But thinking of Betsy Ancker-Johnson and her drive, I keep going and hope you do, too. Living life with no regrets is so much more satisfying. Learn more about this Dearly Departed here>

Dearly Departed profiles are the musings of SC Innovates’ Director and SmartState Endowed Chair Laura B. Cardinal. Dr. Cardinal teaches a series of courses in Strategic Management of Technology + Innovation, wherein each course adds to the unique fusion of innovation, business strategy, science, and technology. Her courses are offered through the UofSC Darla Moore School of Business Professional MBA Program.

Laura B. Cardinal, PhD