In this photo taken in 1961, Georgia’s smiling first lady has a governor named Ernest on either side. (from left) Gov. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina, Betty Vandiver and Gov. Vandiver. (AJC file)
Photo: Bill Young
Photo: Bill Young

Betty Russell Vandiver, former Georgia first lady, died

Betty Russell Vandiver, a former first lady of Georgia, died Wednesday in Lavonia.

As the wife of Gov. Ernest Vandiver, she championed the founding of Milledgeville’s Central State Hospital, the first state institution for the mentally ill.

She had during recent years helped First Lady Sandra Deal in creating “Memories of the Mansion: the Story of Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion.”

Gov. Nathan Deal said of Vandiver: “Historians and pundits often talk about the sacrifices of a governor, but the truly unsung heroes are the members of the first family, who give of themselves for the betterment of others, often quietly, with dignity, and without the applause they deserve. Betty was a prime example of such a woman of grace and Southern charm. We join her family in honoring her contributions to Georgia and in celebrating the fact that she is finally reunited with her beloved husband.”

Vandiver was born in 1927, grew up in Winder and attended the University of Georgia, graduating in 1947 and marrying Ernest Vandiver.

Ernest Vandiver was a Lavonia attorney who got involved in local politics before rising to lieutenant governor, then serving as governor from 1959 to 1963. The couple had three children, who spent some of their early years growing up in the Georgia Governor’s Mansion.

It was a tumultuous time in the nation, and Vandiver, a Democrat who began his political career as a segregationist, oversaw the integration of the University of Georgia. When hard-line segregationist Lester Maddox ran after his term, Vandiver backed the Republican candidate.

Ernest Vandiver died in 2005.

Betty Russell Vandiver was from an important political family. She was related to powerful politician Richard B. Russell Jr., a former state  legislator, governor and later a powerful U.S. senator. She was active in her husband’s political campaigns, and also helped raise toys yearly for the mentally ill.

Funeral services will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. at Lavonia First Baptist Church, with a private burial in Lavonia City – Burgess Cemetery.

Read and sign the online guestbook for Betty Vandiver

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