She gave up a career in nursing long ago, but this Elgin socialite and philanthropist maintains a fierce passion for taking care of others.
Betty Brown loves meeting people. After more than 60 years of volunteer and professional work in the Elgin and Chicago areas, she has a network of connections to prove it.
From her start as a nurse in the 1950s, Brown has been a public relations manager, a wardrobe and etiquette consultant, a pageant judge for Miss America, a magazine publisher, and co-owner of Brown & Brown Advertising with her husband, Floyd, who’s a former WGN radio host and television personality.
Betty became the first black member of the Elgin Junior Service Board and the first black president of the Elgin Woman’s Club, in addition to membership in many other nonprofit groups – all while raising two children.
Today, Brown continues to gain recognition for her civic work, including the Altrusa Woman of the Year, Outstanding Woman in Advertising, The Elgin Cosmopolitan Club Distinguished Service Award, Elgin Image Award and the YWCA Margaret Henry Award. She’s joined The HistoryMakers, the largest African-American oral and video collection in the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institute Hall of Fame.
As her latest recognition, the YWCA Elgin renamed its Social Justice Award in her honor.
How did it feel to have the YWCA Elgin designate the Betty Brown Social Justice Award?
I was so honored, I couldn’t believe it. During the Leader Luncheon, they went through my whole life and told me all the things I had done, which I had never thought about like that. To me, those were just parts of my life growing up. I had started going to the YWCA when I was 10 for tap dancing lessons. I was just so thrilled and so honored to have something like that named after me by my peers in my own hometown.
Who were your major role models growing up in Elgin?
My grandmother and my mom were both role models for me. My mother was very inspirational as a nurse’s aide and did a lot of volunteer work – that’s how I got into it. She took me along to everything she did when I was a kid. Volunteering was always natural to me; it was just a part of life. Every group I’ve ever belonged to has always included volunteer work.
My passion for nursing came from them, too. After high school, I couldn’t get into nursing training at Sherman Hospital in Elgin because I was black, but a friend of mine worked at Saint Joseph Hospital in Joliet. She said I should meet with Sister Priscilla, the head nurse there, and so I did and she said, “I will treat you no better and no worse than any other student.”
I became their first black student there. The nursing experience was wonderful. I later became a supervisor at Saint Joseph Hospital for four years. To this day, I still have people tell me, “Oh, what a nurse you were.” I loved nursing. I really did.
How has fashion impacted your life?
My Aunt Wilma lived in New York and worked for designer Mollie Parnis, who wardrobed the presidents’ wives. I was always hearing about clothes and makeup from her, and she would send me rejected clothes from the studio. Of course, I didn’t know they were anything special then.
But I’m 83 years old now, and I still like makeup and fashion. I joined the Fashion Group International of Chicago in the 1980s. I was on the board of directors, where you were exposed to all kinds of designers and events – I even met Oscar de la Renta. Back then, I never thought of them as anyone special. They were just people. Now that I’m older, I’m thinking, “Oh my! That person was very famous.”
That group led me to getting involved with the Miss Illinois and Miss America pageants, with makeup, wardrobe consulting and PR. I must say, God blessed me twofold. I’ve never gone after any of these different careers; they just happened. They fell in my lap.
I would go to the Palmer House with Ken Price, head of public relations there. He would say, “You were always outstanding because you were always dressed well. Every time I ever saw you, I wondered, ‘Who is that lady?’ And others would say, ‘Oh, she’s just a country girl from Elgin.’”
What has been your biggest motivator throughout your careers and volunteer work?
I love people. I get my energy from people, I really do. I can just feel it immediately from somebody. How else would I know all those people outside my circle?
In stores and restaurants, people always ask me if I’m someone famous. People act like they want to know me. But I’m not famous. I’m just Betty Brown, and I love – love – people.
What is the biggest piece of advice you can share from overcoming your own challenges?
I remember for the Miss America pageant, they throw a ball every year before the grand pageant. I remember going and being amazed. Everybody was in Confederate uniform, and I realized I was the only person of color in the room. It was like a different world.
I used to tell my young ladies when I taught etiquette that when you come to a packed room and you know no one, how do you get into that room? I just talk to everybody. There’s always someone who will signal you and let you into that room. You have to have faith once you get there.