Betty Foy Sanders, former first lady of Georgia and artist, dies

Mayor Massell, Lt. Gov. Carl Sanders, Billy Graham, Betty Sanders. (Photo and caption were provided by Buckhead Coalition Inc) Personal Journey of Sam Massell, former Atlanta mayor (1970-1974), realtor, travel advisor, and president of Buckhead Coalition.

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Mayor Massell, Lt. Gov. Carl Sanders, Billy Graham, Betty Sanders. (Photo and caption were provided by Buckhead Coalition Inc) Personal Journey of Sam Massell, former Atlanta mayor (1970-1974), realtor, travel advisor, and president of Buckhead Coalition.

Betty Foy Sanders, a farm girl turned Georgia first lady with a passion for painting, died over the Memorial Day weekend.

The once-energetic artist, whose creations included portraits, mixed media works and landscapes of her home state, leaves behind her own works and a collection created by fellow Georgia artists housed at Georgia Southern University, where the fine arts department bears her name.

“With her sharp wit, class, and famous sense of humor, she was the epitome of a southern woman. During her years as first lady and during her long and fulfilling life afterwards, she was devoted to beautifying our state, preserving Georgia’s proud history, and helping students of the arts further their education and talents,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement Sunday.

She was 95 years old, and died Sunday, according to initial news reports.

Sanders was born in Statesboro to one of the founding families of Bulloch County. When a grandfather died and left his four children 12,000 acres, her parents moved just outside the city to take up farming. Her father, J.P. Foy, a University of Georgia graduate, managed the agricultural business while her mother, Ida Teresa “Doll” Bird Foy, ensured that Sanders and her sister were trained in fine arts.

At 10, Sanders was enrolled in the piano, tap dance and art classes that gave her the first taste of what became a life-long passion. But the classes didn’t erase her rural roots.

“I guess I was kind of tomboyish,” Sanders told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1985, recalling her favorite Christmas toys. “I liked the fishing reel and a basketball set.”

Sanders spent two semesters at Georgia Southern. then transferred to the University of Georgia at Athens, where she earned a degree in fine arts in 1947.

A friend of her future husband introduced the two at a sorority party. They dated for two years. Carl Sanders would loiter around UGA art classrooms while Betty Foy painted and sculpted. When he passed the bar in the summer of 1947, he asked Betty’s mother for permission to marry her.

They wed on a hot August day, then relocated to his hometown of Augusta, where he was elected state representative in 1954. Nine years later, Carl Sanders was elected governor. He died in 2014.

At 36, Sanders was one of the youngest state first ladies in the country.

“We lived in a three-bedroom house in Augusta, but I was hardly there for two years while I was campaigning, flying with Carl in a single-engine plane to fields and landing strips around the state,” she said. “Then I walked into this mansion with 16 rooms, 12-foot ceilings and two little kids and thought, ‘What do I do now?’”

These were tumultuous days, as the state wrestled with issues of civil rights and school desegregation. But she left those problems to others.

One of Carl Sanders’ earliest acts was to create the first Georgia Council of the Arts — something that made his wife extremely proud.

“It opened the door to towns, counties and schools to bring art, the symphony and ballet into their areas,” Sanders said in 2006. She served seven years on the arts council board. “It was the largest dose of culture this state had ever seen from one governor.”

A glamorous hostess, she claimed several Georgia firsts, including being the first governor’s wife to give a televised tour of the official residence and the first to entertain a sitting president’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson.

She oversaw the planning and building of the new Governor’s Mansion in Buckhead. The home was finished two months after her husband left office, and Lester Maddox became the first governor to live in it.

She continued her efforts to bring culture to communities beyond metro Atlanta by establishing the Betty Foy Sanders Georgia Artists Collection at Georgia Southern. As of recently, the collection comprised nearly 100 works, many donated from her own collection.

“She purchased one or two pieces a year that she found to be very innovative,” said Patricia Carter, who was the chair of the Betty Foy Sanders Department of Art. “She personally curated the works, a mix of media with paintings, sculptures, ceramics and illustrations.”

She continued working on her own paintings. The Sanders’ Buckhead home, built for golfing great Bobby Jones, was crowded with her large paintings while she continued living in it.

Her friend Deen Sanders said: “She always said that she wanted her art to enrich the lives of other people and make them feel good. I think she’s captured that in everything she’s done.”

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