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USF Women's Basketball Gets an Assist from Longtime Lobbyist Kathy Betancourt with an IRA Gift

USF Women's Basketball Gets an Assist from Longtime Lobbyist Kathy Betancourt with an IRA Gift

By Dave Scheiber

When Kathleen Betancourt enrolled at the University of South Florida in 1964, her packed schedule included more than just class time and homework. The Ybor City-born teen worked a part-time job at a movie theater, selling tickets and running the concession stand. Betancourt's parents were massage therapists, operating a small business in West Tampa, and it was crucial that she help pay her way as a first-generation college student.

One day, something happened at the theater that said a lot about the independent-minded person Betancourt was - and who she would later become as a trusted, straight-talking Tallahassee and Washington lobbyist for the teachers of Hillsborough County, the City of Tampa and later USF. It even connects today to her philanthropic support of the Bulls' Women's Basketball program and her strong beliefs in equal opportunities for female USF athletes.

"I liked working at the theater because the box office was quiet at night and once the movie started I could study - something my manager always let me do," she recollects from her South Tampa home. "Well, one day the big boss came in from Boston and told me, 'You should not be looking at a book - you should be smiling at people when they walk by.'

"I told my manager, 'If I just smile at people when they walk by, they're going to think I'm deranged.' After all, a girl studying is a far better image than sitting there with a stupid grin. But when the bigwig from Boston came back in, I flashed a big old smile. It was so dumb! Still, I did it since that job made it possible for me to go to school and it was no skin off my nose."

Betancourt's direct style, wry humor and good political instincts always served her well in her career. She represented teachers, former Tampa mayors Bob Martinez and Sandy Freedman on all manner of complex civic and policy issues for 14 years; and then served with distinction as USF's governmental advocate under former USF president Betty Castor and current president Judy Genshaft for a total of 17 years.

Though she retired as USF associate vice president for government relations in 2011, Betancourt, known to friends as "Kathy," remains deeply rooted in her devotion to USF - particularly as a season-ticket holder for women's and men's basketball. You can always find her cheering at home games, three rows behind the Bulls' bench. But her support also includes a recent $30,000 scholarship contribution to the Women's Basketball program through the Office of Gift Planning and an additional $20,000 to create a fund which will support a variety of USF initiatives.

"You don't have to be rich to do this," she explains. "Anyone can. I don't have a lot of money and I have a modest income. But I've reached a certain age - ahem - where I must withdraw money from my IRA. So why not just give it to USF? I avoid the taxes and at the same time put it to good use. It needn't be done in one chunk, either. You can spread your contributions over time. That's what I'm doing and I encourage others to think about doing that, too."

Women's head coach Jose Fernandez is grateful for the generosity of one of the program's biggest fans. "Kathy is a staple of what USF is all about," he says. "She bleeds green and gold. Her passion and enthusiasm for our student athletes and our team is amazing. Kathy has assisted our program in regards to government relations and community involvement. I appreciate her friendship and support for our program."

So what lies behind Betancourt's basketball court passion? "First of all, it's my favorite sport," she says with a smile. But there's more to that story, especially as it applies to the women's program at USF.

"The two biggest college sports are football and basketball," she says. "The closest thing women have to the 'Big Stage' is basketball. Look what it's done for our friends at UConn. So I decided to help make women's basketball at my school among the best in the country."

Yet there's an even deeper reason underlying Betancourt's backing of the women's game: "When I was with the City, Betty Castor was Florida's Commissioner of Education and was one of the leaders in the legislative battle to allow fast-pitch softball for Florida's high school girls. It's hard to believe that fast pitch was illegal, but it was!"

Tampa's Parks & Recreation Department was a player in the push to make the change and so was USF. "That fight - and it was a fight -underscored for me that athletic programs for females had not been treated fairly over the years," Betancourt adds. "I was impressed by the girls and women across the state whose passion for fairness got them and our many male supporters fired up about lobbying - not just this issue but for women's sports, in general.

"Title IX was a game-changer for everyone. But you're invisible unless you play for big-time championships and get lots of media attention. So I figured that if I wanted to help shine the spotlight on women's athletics, the potentially high profile of women's basketball is the best avenue available."

Growing up in West Tampa as the youngest of Steve and Mary Barcena's three daughters, Betancourt played basketball with all the neighborhood kids. But in organized girls' basketball, players had to endure rules similar to the fast-pitch prohibition, or, as Betancourt says, "the patronizing and lame half-court, three-dribble maximum rules." Meanwhile, she attended St. Joseph's Catholic School and on to Ybor City's Our Lady of Perpetual Help high school, graduating with honors and a host of extracurricular activities.

Most young women from her neighborhood were not encouraged to attend college because it meant going away. The vast majority of families couldn't afford it, and there were no academic scholarships, such as today's Bright Futures, available. Betancourt, however, was determined to go and the relatively new Tampa presence of USF, an affordable, high quality public university, was a godsend for working families. USF provided an open door to her dreams and to others who needed to stay at home.

Immediately after graduation she went to work as a substitute teacher, which turned into a full-time elementary school position. But after just over three weeks on the job, Betancourt joined her fellow teachers and walked out on strike. "We were so idealistic and pretty naive," she says. "Salaries weren't the focus. Our goal was to improve the conditions for the kids in public schools."

After the strike, Betancourt returned to the classroom and finished the school year. Somewhat disillusioned by the public perception of the walkout, however, she competed for and was awarded a USF fellowship, in which she took a year's leave and earned her master's degree in Education.

Betancourt returned to the classroom but the memory of the teachers' strike convinced her it was time to help make change. She became active in the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association (CTA), where she rose through the union's leadership ranks and established a profile at the state level, having been named to two statewide education panels. One appointment was by Education Commissioner Ralph Turlington; the other by Governor Reubin Askew. When the CTA decided to retain a full-time staff lobbyist, Betancourt earned the job.

That triggered a career shift to full-time lobbying. And the rest is history. When Castor became president, she coaxed Betancourt into leaving her job representing the City of Tampa and returning to her alma mater, bringing her adult life full circle.

"Looking back, there are lots of highlights representing USF, some big, some small," she reflects. "But the most fun and probably the craziest was the behind-the-scenes intrigue and Board of Regents lobbying to help president Castor, USF Bull/regents Dennis Ross and Liz Lindsay, USF athletic director Paul Griffin, and primary Bulls Club fundraiser Lee Roy Selmon bring football to USF. President Frank Borkowski started the drive but president Castor and her team brought the ball over the finish line. It was a joy to be on that team roster."

But if you ask Betancourt to name her proudest career accomplishment, what comes to mind is a feeling of collective pride.

"It's knowing that I have had the honor of representing the dedicated teachers of Hillsborough County, my hometown and my alma mater - two great mayors and two wonderful presidents!" she says. "I've been blessed with a career as staff support for some really good people who have made the world a better place. And I helped. How cool is that?!"

And nobody has to tell her to smile about it.


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