$13.7 million gift will create endowments for Grinnell faculty, Museum of Art

John and Jennifer Betts
   John ’65 and Jennifer Betts

March 16, 2022 — Not long after John Betts ’65 graduated from Grinnell College with a physics degree and a minor in mathematics, he set his sights on outer space.

“I had a fellowship to Columbia that [physics professor] Grant O. Gale had managed to get me, but I turned it down because Purdue had an astronaut program,” Betts recalls. “Most of the folks I was sharing desks with in class were pilots out of the Air Force Academy. I decided this was a little more risky and exciting than I was ready for. So, I began looking at the mathematical part.”

Betts soon embarked on a decorated career in the aerospace industry, specializing in optimal control theory. A strong supporter and advocate for science funding, John and his wife, Jennifer, recently set up a $13.7 million planned gift to Grinnell College. The gift will provide $12.7 million to establish the Betts Faculty Endowment and $1 million to establish the Betts Endowment for the Grinnell College Museum of Art.

According to available College records, the Betts $13.7 million gift is the second largest amount commitment to Grinnell.

“We are thrilled and honored by John and Jennifer Betts’ tremendous generosity,” says Grinnell College President Anne F. Harris. “This gift will have a lasting benefit for teaching and learning at the College. It speaks powerfully to the meaningful connections John made as a Grinnell student and his and Jennifer’s desire to help create a community that serves as a learning laboratory for future students.” 

The Betts Faculty Endowment will be focused on interdisciplinary fields and projects that leverage research in biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, computer science, and mathematics. The funds could be used to endow chairs or professorships but also gives the flexibility to the dean or the president of the College to support faculty in other ways.
The Betts Endowment for the Grinnell College Museum of Art can be used for museum programs, collection maintenance, and teaching and learning opportunities. The endowment funds also will help preserve the Betts Family Art Collection. 

John’s father, Theon Betts, was a commercial artist. After serving in World War I, Theon studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then spent several years painting in France. When he returned to the U.S., he painted a great variety of subjects, some, such as the Dubuque Ham billboard seen across Iowa in the 20th century, became familiar sights in the region.

A Dubuque Ham billboard created by Theon Betts.
A billboard for Dubuque Ham created by Theon Betts.

“Commercial work was his primary form of support, but when we went on vacations, he set up an easel in a particular location, and I watched him paint a landscape,” John recalls. “Watercolors had to be painted rapidly, so the whole painting would be done in 40 minutes.”

The Betts family was full of artists. John’s uncle, Louis Betts, was a portrait painter. Some of his subjects were prominent figures of the first half of the 20th century including author Booth Tarkington, Drs. William and Charles Mayo (of the Mayo Clinic), and members of the automobile titan Dodge family.

Painting of brick two story home by Theon Betts
   Painting by Theon Betts

John was looking for a home for the family collection. He maintains a significant part of his father’s artwork and a self-portrait of his uncle. “The artwork itself will be cared for at Grinnell and shared with others as they see fit,” he says.

John Betts grew up on the northwest side of Chicago and was first introduced to Grinnell College through a family friend, Bob Benowicz ’63. Both Bob and Rick Fuller ’63, a school classmate, lived in Cowles Hall on Grinnell’s campus. Benowicz and Fuller introduced Betts to Cowles and most of his Grinnell activities revolved around Cowles events and competitions. 

Academically, Betts enjoyed taking Gale’s physics courses. Beryl Clotfelter was another favorite professor. He still vividly recalls his senior advanced project where he and his lab partner, Steve Rockwood ’65, built a laser, which was not a common phenomenon in 1965. 

“The connections that I have from Grinnell and the good friends I made is something I’ve cherished through the years,” Betts says.  

Betts worked as the optimization technique section manager for the performance analysis department at The Aerospace Corp. for 17 years. He moved to Seattle in 1987 and was a technical fellow at Boeing until retiring in 2009. He has authored three books about optimal control and written over 50 technical publications. 

Jennifer Betts is a retired critical care nurse. After living in Arizona for a few years, John and Jennifer have relocated to Oregon and are building a home near the coast. John still does consulting work, most recently conferring with the German Space Agency, which is using his software to do trajectory design for satellites going around the moon and earth.

“John’s visionary work in the aerospace industry is inspiring, and the gift from him and Jennifer will enduringly inspire future Grinnellians in their scientific and artistic endeavors,” Harris says. 

— by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

Learn more about the Grinnell College Museum of Art exhibitions and collections, and see how Grinnell’s Science Division is preparing students to ask and answer scientific questions that haven’t even been thought of yet.

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