An Icon Retires
Posted 08/29/2015 03:00PM

For hundreds of students from around the world, the term “Mrs. Betsy” is synonymous with summer on the Collina d’Oro. As the head of Le Château des Enfants (CDE) since 1990, Betsy Newell has transformed the lives of hundreds of students from around the world. The summer of 2015 marked Betsy’s 75th birthday, and her final year at the helm of CDE. It’s hard to imagine a TASIS summer without Betsy around. 

It is thanks to a tiny advertisement in Vogue that Betsy is connected to TASIS. Her father was a code breaker and her mother worked on Wall Street, and in 1943 her mother was thumbing through Vogue and saw a tiny ad that said summer camp for children ages 3-9. “In those days, there was no air conditioning in New York, so off I went to Frog Hollow Farm in Pennsylvania for eight weeks, where Mrs. Fleming was bringing up her children.” And so it began.

“It was run very much the way you would imagine Mrs. Fleming running anything,” Betsy remembers. “At that time there were lots of television stars and actors who sent their children to Frog Hollow, so there was always a huge group of celebrities that went down on Sundays, when we all wore only white. During the week we were always very well-dressed.” Whenever Betsy’s school, Brearley, let out for spring, summer, or Christmas breaks, Betsy would be on the train by herself to Pennsylvania. “I wanted to spend every possible moment at Frog Hollow. I just loved it. Mrs. Fleming was as much my mother as she was her own children’s mother.”

In 1956, Betsy joined Mrs. Fleming’s Swiss Holiday summer program, based in Villa Verbanella overlooking Lake Maggiore. “Most of us knew each other from Frog Hollow,” she remembers. “It was my first time abroad and I remember it vividly. First there was the 13-hour flight wearing proper hats and white gloves. We landed in Zurich in the late afternoon, and the blue VW buses picked us up and drove six hours over the Gotthard. Half the ride was in the dark. I remember waking up the next morning and looking out the door and seeing that sensational view, and how my heart stopped.” That summer, Betsy and her fellow campers spent four weeks traveling around Europe and four weeks at the villa, studying Italian. “There were 12 of us, and we didn’t stay in any hotels. We camped everywhere, so you rolled up your clothes in your sleeping bag and it went on the top of the van with everything.

Number of years
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Betsy returned to Europe every summer until she was in her early 20s. The first few summers remain vivid in her mind. “Our trips around Europe were fabulous. It was when I first learned to love food. We went to the coast of Spain and to Normandy. We never went to restaurants so had to buy food along the way. This seemed exotic at times — none of us had ever cooked mussels — but we did it, even though it sometimes took two hours to boil a pot of water on those kerosene stoves.”

After graduating from Brearley, Betsy went to Smith College and then to the Fashion Institute of Technology, as her dream was to be a dress designer. (She later completed her Master’s at Oxford, UK.) Through a contact of Mrs. Fleming’s, Betsy was given a job at the showroom of designer Philip Hulitar. “It was the most ghastly year I’ve ever had,” she recalls. Aware of Betsy’s misery, Mrs. Fleming called her in April. “You’re miserable, she said. This is stupid. You’re wasting your time. Come over this summer and we’ll figure out something. And that summer, she told me she was going to open up a New York office, and that I should go around the country and talk about the new postgraduate program. So for a few years I traveled all over the US with a 30-pound movie projector showing the same film over and over. I can still recite it in my sleep.” She loved the job despite the hectic schedule; “One day in Cincinnati, I visited eight schools in one day!” 

Along with her job with TASIS, Betsy made bespoke evening clothing and ran an au pair service. She spent her summers in Lugano until becoming head of International Playgroup, a year-round school with five locations in Manhattan and one in Queens. For the next 15 years, Betsy stuck close to home until again, Mrs. Fleming came calling, in 1990.

“She said, you know, I have a great idea. Why don’t you come and run the second session of the summer program? You might like it. Of course I loved it.” 

While Betsy delighted in introducing young students to a bigger world, she found the most satisfaction with the one or two children whose lives really change each summer. “I remember one student who was miserable. He was very unhappy and couldn’t communicate. I discussed things with the parents, and they took steps to help him. And the child returned, summer after summer, and continued to be successful in the other TASIS programs. The fact that he was able to come back and thrive was so satisfying.”

This ethos resonated deeply with her staff. Meagan Vincent, longtime CDE Assistant Director, recalls how important the individual child is to Betsy. “Early in my time here, we had a child who was aggressive, difficult, and unhappy, and everyone wanted to send him home. But Betsy said, No. This is the reason we are here this summer. If we can show this child enough love to turn his summer around, we will have succeeded. I remember crying as she said that, as I didn’t quite understand this kind of love yet. I just wanted to love like that.”

Betsy also felt her role as Director extended to shepherding her staff. “Every year, on the first morning, I said that the staff gets more out of the program than the children. They’re at a much more impressionable age. Little children’s memories don’t really hold much of what went on here. But the staff remember it for the rest of their lives.” Betsy always talked to the staff about in loco parentis, which at first she knows they don’t really grasp. “But you live with these children; you tuck them in at night. By the end of the summer, our staff understands the dimensions of this responsibility.” Betsy frequently hears from people who continue to speak about what their TASIS summer meant to them, even if it was decades ago. 

As a former camper herself, Betsy knows how important a solid staff is to a program. “There’s a photograph on the fireplace of Casa Fleming from 1948 of all of us during the summer. I can still name all the counselors.” Betsy’s choices echo the experience Mrs. Fleming gave her both as a student and as a counselor herself. “Mrs. Fleming always made people feel worthy and capable and successful. It never occurred to her that children weren’t capable, or that young people weren’t capable.” Meagan feels this is Mrs. Fleming’s influence on Betsy, too. “Betsy always says that children from around the world are intriguing and engaging people who can contribute to the world around them, and certainly to a conversation at the dinner table. She has taught me to keep my expectations of children high, and that children will meet the expectations set for them.”

Betsy’s philosophy takes much from watching Mrs. Fleming over the years. “The fun of getting to know the children, and the delight of getting to work with children of this age, that surely must come from Mrs. Fleming. I said to Meagan all the time, I don’t think Mrs. Fleming would have done this, or do it this way…and that influenced my decisions.”

Many of those who worked with Betsy throughout the years compared her spirit to Mrs. Fleming’s. Betsy laughs. “I learned it all from her! I am always reminded of it when I listen to the music from What a Life, she had a great flair for the dramatic. To be successful in our business, in the people business, you have to have a flair for the dramatic. And she had this joie de vivre that really lifts you. Many of my views are different to hers, but imagine growing up with her. For me it was an amazing experience. At Brearley we were studying and thinking about all these things, and to be able to experience them in Europe — it was remarkable.” 

Betsy has been involved in education for decades, and although life today moves at lightning speed, she still feels children are the same. “They want to be capable and loved. We need to encourage self-confidence and independence. If CDE children learn two words of English, fine. They won’t remember them in two months anyway. But we can help them develop life skills that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives. This is the time you do it; after age 10 or 11 in many ways it is too late, as character is formed. Those things haven’t changed and my view of those things hasn’t changed.”

CDE parent and TASIS Associate Director of Admissions Emily McKee was especially impressed by Betsy’s genuine care for children. “It was a joy to watch my girls’ faces light up when they saw Mrs. Betsy, and hers light up in response. Betsy showed my girls how to be compassionate, inspired, engaged, and thoughtful.” 

Running a world-class summer program and a top New York school for decades is an inordinate amount of work, especially for a woman who is a decade beyond the typical retirement age. “A change is as good as a vacation,” Betsy laughs, “and I feel this is my spiritual home. I step off that airplane and 70 years come flooding back to me.” Having people depend on you, Betsy continues, keeps you young. “I come from that strain of New Englanders who say you can’t let people down. It’s ingrained in who I am, and I think Mrs. Fleming was that way, too.” And now she’ll focus her energy on her husband Peter and sons Chandler Bigelow and Ronald Newell.

So what does she feel we can teach our children as we move into the latter half of this decade? “Every person has something in their character that makes them special and who they are,” she says. “But Mrs. Fleming’s whole philosophy exposed people to what is beautiful. That is important, along with having some understanding of what’s beautiful in other people. There’s so much in our culture that is so ugly and disgusting. Mrs. Fleming felt deeply about that, as do I.”

Praise for Betsy comes from generations of children and parents, but also from her colleagues. TSP Director Dr. Jim Haley says, “Betsy was an inspirational leader who always put the welfare of the children first and reminded those of us on staff that we have the power to change lives, one child at a time.”

The summer of 2015 will resonate at CDE, and indeed at TASIS, for many years to come. In her wake Betsy has left an outstanding summer program, but perhaps more importantly she has changed the lives of hundreds of children, counselors, and teachers who are often reminded of her influence. “I was born under a lucky star that I met Mrs. Fleming. It was all so serendipitous,” she says. But we, too, are lucky that Betsy has shared so much of herself with us.

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