Betty Peace Stall uses her civic pride as force for good



Betty Peace Stall was part of a committee that raised $42 million in construction and endowment funds for the Peace Center for the Performing Arts.

In the 15 years that her husband fought cancer on a daily basis, Betty Peace Stall lived by a code.

"Carpe diem," Stall said in a 1999 interview for City People. "You learn to focus on what is important. You don't waste much time."

Five years after her husband's death, "carpe diem" continues to define the life of Stall, whose ability to seize opportunity has helped shape the culture of Greenville.

Stall is a natural leader, a hands-on activist and adventurous spirit wrapped in a stately package and soft Southern accent. A granddaughter of Bony Hampton Peace Sr., who founded the Greenville News-Piedmont Co., she inherited the love of a challenge.

She says her father, B.H. Peace Jr., "helped develop in me an attitude to try anything, even fix the plumbing," says Stall, who laughs at memory of the time she took apart a sink while her husband was at work -- but couldn't reassemble it. "I used to enjoy cutting grass. I changed tires, too, but I wouldn't want to try that now. I've just always loved to try things."

Repair work remains a priority, although the endeavors today are less labor intensive. The sinks and tires were replaced years ago by PTA work and by the South Carolina Commission on Mental Retardation, now known as the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.

She also worked with the National Right to Read program. And eventually, Stall tackled projects such as the Peace Center for the Performing Arts and the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities.

It is the Peace Center that bears the family name and also offered Stall the greatest challenge and the greatest reward. The Peace Center's infancy can be traced to weekly meetings in the mid-1980s with Stall, David Freeman and Fred Walker. In May 1986, the Peace family -- the surviving spouses and children of the late Roger C. Peace, B.H. Peace Jr. and Frances Peace Graham -- unconditionally donated $10 million to begin the project. The family later raised that total to $13.6 million.

Freeman, a senior attorney at the Wyche, Burgess, Freeman and Parham law firm, went to Stall with the idea because he had been impressed with her work on several earlier civic projects. They had worked many volunteer hours together on the Community Foundation for Greater Greenville. He knew that Stall had also served on the Citizens Committee for the peaceful integration of Greenville County schools, on United Way campaigns and hospital boards.

"Because of her business expertise, she has been tapped for service on corporate boards as well as civic causes, and she's always emerged as a leader. She inspires consensus," says Freeman, "and leads to a considerable degree by example.

"She is one of the foremost civic leaders in the state," Freeman says. "By natural choice, she became a pioneer leader in the project."

Freeman, who says Stall "broke the ceiling before people talked about a glass ceiling," knew Stall would be the perfect choice to serve as president of the Peace Center for the Performing Arts Foundation. She tackled that in 1986 as the foundation's first president; her husband was a member of the foundation committee.

In 1994, the Garden Club of America and the Foothills Garden Club of Greenville presented Stall with its Medal of Merit "for coordinating the public and private sectors to make the Peace Center a reality." That came two years after the International Society of Performing Arts Administrators, citing Stall's work on behalf of the Peace Center, presented Stall with one of its five national Angel Awards. The Peace Center continues to benefit from her talents and expertise.

"We use her a lot. She's been involved in every aspect of the Peace Center from the get-go," says Peace Center Executive Director Megan Riegel. "She's very powerful in a quiet way, and she's dedicated to every organization she is involved with."

In an era that rarely encouraged leadership by women, Stall emerged as a leader gradually.

"Right after I graduated from Hollins, I remember my father saying, 'Now I guess we need to send you to a secretarial school, so you can get a job,' " Stall says. "When I was coming up, there were not that many opportunities for women. It was not something you complained about. I was a Southern lady, and that was the way it was," Stall says. "It was a different time.

"I might have had a more stressful life if I had been born 40 years later and had more choices," says Stall, who married textile executive Edward Stall shortly after earning her Hollins degree. She raised three children and methodically made her mark on business and civic organizations.

The biggest imprints are at the Peace Center and the Governor's School.

She was part of a committee that raised $42 million for the Peace Center. Her work on the Governor's School capital campaign committee helped raise $14.6 million to make the construction of the campus possible.

"She's the type of person who wouldn't ask others to give to a cause that she didn't give to herself," says Governor's School spokesman Dave Partridge. "It would be fair to say that she has been very generous to the school."

Typically, her involvement is more than financial. Before making decisions, Stall gathers information in a personal way. "She doesn't just go to the board meetings," says son Edward Jr. "When she was on the South Carolina Commission on Mental Retardation, she would take me along with her to Whitten Center, and we'd have lunch with the patients there. She did the same thing when she trained tutors for the Right to Read program."

The Peace Center required that level of involvement.

"When we raised $10 million, we thought we could build the world; we found out it would not even build one good concert hall. It took a lot more fund-raising," says Stall of the Peace Center campaign. Her husband also worked on that campaign in the early stages.

"After it opened, we had no endowment. We were told we'd lose $350,000 a year in operating expenses, and we were losing more than that. So, we raised an endowment fund. In terms of work, the opening of the Peace Center was only the beginning."

With the endowment in place, Stall isn't comfortable with the idea that she was a central figure in the Peace Center's creation.

"I didn't build that building. It came from a lot of people. I was fortunate to have taken part in a group that pulled it all together," Stall says.

But she knows that her work helped make reality of a dream long held by her late husband, one that featured the Peace Center as a hub of activity on South Main Street."I think the center helped Greenville develop a new image of itself. When I see South Main and the river and West End come back and see crowds of people there, it's exciting," says Stall. "I give (former mayor) Max Heller a lot of credit for that. My husband would be very pleased at how it has turned out."

During her husband's long illness, the civic work became an outlet that helped Stall maintain a positive attitude. "I didn't give up the volunteer work during his illness. He knew that at some point, I'd be alone, and he knew I'd need the involvement. He encouraged it," Stall says.

"You're supposed to do as much as you can with what you've got. It's a matter of being a good steward," Stall says. "My family, my faith, my education tell me that."

Another of Stall's passions is to her hometown.

"She loves this community. It's part of her, and she's such a part of it," says Edward Jr. "I think that's one of the reasons we all found a way to come back (to live). We share her love for this city -- and we love being near her and our grandmother (92-year-old Dorothy Peace, who lives near Stall).

"She's a role model, and she's a great blend of the old generation and the new generation," Edward Jr. says of his mother. "She grew up at a time when women weren't leaders. But she's so knowledgeable, so astute, that when the time did come, she became a leader."

Among Stall's most rewarding leadership tasks was one that brought integration to Greenville County schools in 1970. As part of the Citizens Committee on integration, she helped revamp a structure that offered logistical challenges involving students, teachers, facilities and furniture for 105 schools.

"I have always been proud of that fact that Greenville did it peacefully, with grace and style," says Stall, who later wrote an article about integration for the Greenville County Historical Society.

Stall has cultivated the same elements in her personal life, and her home reflects that. Her back yard is a colorful collage of caladiums, bell peppers, blackberry vines and autumn glories -- all neatly packaged in vegetable, shade, water and flower gardens that are a haven for squirrels and people and an occasional blue heron."It's like country in the city," she says of her retreat. "Edward was the gardener -- we moved here 21 years ago because he wanted a sunny spot for his tomatoes. Then I fell in love with it."

"Life wouldn't be very good without a vegetable garden," says Stall, who grows her tomatoes from seed and raises all her vegetables organically. "It gives a sense of peace and a sense of accomplishment."

Dozens of plants represent what Stall calls a friendship garden -- gifts transplanted from the gardens of friends. She readily matches each plant with its source.

"The greatest joy in having a garden," Stall says, "is sharing."

It's a philosophy that has served Stall well, in and out of the garden.

Abe Hardesty