Every day, children gather around the "Window on Animal Health" at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences to watch veterinarians and NCSU vet-terns tend to creatures from rattlesnakes to rabbits. As the presentation ends, it's not uncommon to hear a youngster declare, "I want to be an animal doctor." That scene plays out throughout the museum, as tomorrow's leaders dream of discovering dinosaur fossils or uncharted stars after taking in an exhibit, seeing a scientist's dazzling display or doing a hands-on experiment.
This is Dr. Betsy Bennett's vision fulfilled - a place for visitors of all ages to become actively involved in science and nature. Children get a jump start on the sometimes mystifying or intimidating subjects that will be essential to their future success, and they have a lot of fun doing it.
Bennett retired in 2012 after more than two decades as the museum's director, transforming it from exhibit space in a cramped state office building into a pioneering institution now being replicated worldwide. She altered the Raleigh skyline - twice - and created a global destination that will inspire generations. To get there she snared dinosaurs, recruited world-class scientists, won over legislators and enlisted a platoon of CEOs. Former Gov. Jim Hunt dubbed her "a force of nature."
Such accolades are a long way from the postwar Alabama schoolgirl who found a love of nature on butterfly walks with her mother. The only physics major at all-female Hollins University, she excelled in the male-dominated worlds of science and politics. She earned a doctorate in science education at the University of Virginia and was elected to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board in the 1970s, helping craft an integration and pupil assignment plan in a tense and divisive era.
Bennett, named Tar Heel of the Year in 2011 by the News & Observer, is a past president of the Association of Science Museum Directors. She was presented with the NC Award for Public Service in 2014 and currently serves on the boards of the Kenan Institute for Science & Engineering, the N.C. Botanical Garden, Triangle Land Conservancy and Kidzu Children's Museum, among others. She works as strategic counsel at Capital Development Services.
Upon retirement from the museum, she shared her reflections: "With the help of the state of North Carolina, the public and private sector, a devoted staff and the support of so many generous individuals, we have built a world-renowned center for the study of our state and our world. What a tremendous gift for the people of North Carolina."