Betty Wiseman has vision.
She sees with her mind. She sees with her heart. She sees with her faith.
What she sees others often do not — or do not want to.
Without her vision, Belmont University might not have a women’s basketball program or any women’s sports, for that matter. Without her vision, generations of Bruins athletes — men’s and women’s — might not have witnessed life in parts of the world that don’t qualify as tourist destinations and, consequently, would not have gained a measure of perspective on their own lives. Without her vision, Belmont athletics simply would not be Belmont athletics.
“When you get to be my age there are different titles for you — trailblazer or pioneer,” Wiseman said. “I treasure that.”
She turned 70 in February. A day earlier she was diagnosed with breast cancer, for which she currently undergoes daily radiation therapy.
For someone with her ability to discern the proper path, that was an easy one.
Friday is Betty Wiseman’s final day as a full-time employee at Belmont. Her retirement ends an era that began 52 years ago when the Portland, Tenn. native enrolled as a student.
She’s been a member of the Belmont Athletics Hall of Fame for more than 30 years, a professor emeritus in the Department of Health and Human Performance since 2006 and for the last decade the Striplin-Wiseman Athletic Office Complex has reminded all who walk through its doors that she is a cornerstone in the foundation of all things related to the athletics department.
“I think God speaks to us in a lot of different ways,” she said. “I just know in my heart that the timing is right. If I didn’t, I would still be coming to work next week.”
Wiseman graduated from Belmont in 1965 and was hired the following year as an associate professor of health and physical education.
It wasn’t long before she approached then-President Herbert Gabhart and said she wanted to start a women’s basketball team. The program was founded in 1968, was one of the first of its kind in the Southeast, and Wiseman served as coach for the first 16 years. Her teams won 62 percent of their games and made four straight appearances in the National Women’s Invitational Tournament during the 1970s.
“I think early on it was a threat to men’s athletics and what it might take away from men’s athletics,” she said. “I think Title IX was kind of a threat when it came along in the ’70s.
“But I never saw it as that. All I wanted was to give girls an opportunity. When I was in college here at Belmont, I kept saying ‘Why? Why is there not anything for women?’ Then I began to say ‘Why not?’ … I just feel blessed that Dr. Gabhart listened and he didn’t turn me away.”
Eventually, her vision far exceeded just one program, even the one she founded. She transitioned into administration and ultimately became assistant athletic director/senior women’s administrator; the role will serve as the last on her lengthy résumé.
To label her as a pillar of just women’s athletics, however, would be … well, shortsighted.
“I have no way of knowing how many recruits I would not have gotten had they and the parents not gone in and talked to Betty Wiseman and come out feeling really good about Belmont,” men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd said. “It’s immediate to see what kind of person she is. And her love for and belief in Belmont is so genuine.
Whatever title she has held, whatever job description has been bestowed upon her, Wiseman always has considered herself a teacher above all.
As her role expanded over the years so did the size of her classroom. For years, she has led a program in which members of all the university’s teams participated in mission trips throughout the world.
“They’re always going to places that need help,” Byrd said. “They’re not going to Waikiki. They’re not going on vacations. They’re going to some of the toughest places in the world. … They’ve been so many places and helped so many folks and I have not heard one complaint about how tough it was. That’s Betty’s leadership.”
For most, retirement is a time of reflection. Wiseman has done her share in recent weeks and days as an increasing number of people stop in her office to wish her well.
Predictably, though, her gaze is firmly affixed on what’s to come or what could be — beyond the cancer treatment, beyond the building that bears her name or beyond the undeniable legacy she already has established as a visionary for the university and women’s athletics as a whole.
“It’s good to look back,” she said. “But at this point in my life, I’m looking forward. I really believe that I’m going to be healed from this cancer and that I’ve got a future. I certainly will continue to be involved at Belmont, just in support and encouragement. This has been my home for 52 years. So the transition will not be easy for me, but I think the timing is right.
“I think we really have to be aware of time in our lives and I’ve given my whole life to this place. When I leave, I’m not going to be leaving it for good. I’m just not going to be coming to work every day.”
It was easy for her to see that the time was right. Likewise, it’s not difficult for anyone who has known her to envision how she will approach what comes next.
“I’ve heard her say [the cancer] slowed her down,” Byrd said. “Betty doesn’t whine or complain, but it’s pretty obvious that what she has gone through and what she’s going through now has been a signal to her that it’s time to slow down.
“She won’t quit doing anything. I can’t imagine Betty Wiseman sitting around on a back porch looking out on a lake.”
Even if she did, though, no doubt she would see so much more than just the lake.