She Leaves Town to Climb Mountains

Tribute to Betty Castor
Prevent Blindness Florida
Person of Vision Award
Thursday, March 20th
St. Petersburg, FL

Good evening. Well, I can feel it. I’m sure you can feel it: the Castors are in the house!

Betty and Kathy. Mother and Daughter. Two political powerhouses.

I am a huge fan of Congresswoman Kathy Castor. But, tonight, I’ve been asked to direct my praise specifically to my friend and colleague, Betty.

Betty Castor-1

Many of Betty’s tributes will praise her leadership in these southwestern counties and throughout the great state of Florida. But I’m here to tell you some of the things the lady has been up to when she’s out of town.

Betty and I have the privilege of leading the Fulbright Scholarship Board together. When I joined the Board, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called to congratulate me and she reminisced about Senator Fulbright who founded this prestigious exchange and diplomacy program. Then she laughed and said, “Albright, Fulbright. You know, Tom, just think, some poor guy’s out there with a business card that says ‘Half-bright.’”

Fulbright does have an extraordinary collection of Nobel Prize winners, CEOs, prime ministers, and university presidents—powerhouse leaders, people who are like Betty Castor. But our alumni are extraordinarily leaders of all kinds—school teachers, nurses, chiefs of police, farmers, engineers—good, solid citizens who have smarts and skill of all kinds, adults of all ages, with many different kinds of education, who lead by listening and learning from people very different from themselves.

That sounds like a lot like Betty too, of course.

Fulbright has had 300,000 amazing participants over the 68 years since Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas conceived of it in 1946, convincing Congress to fund it with military supply surplus that was left all around the world after WWII.


Fast forward 68 years and now, there are 8000 Fulbright scholars a year: 3000 Americans, 5000 international participants. Women and men who come from and go to 160 countries and all 50 states—cities, small towns, public and private universities, community colleges, and all kinds of service.

Our focus is on having an impact—solving problems, building understanding, creating a more peaceful world. Whether it is climate change, preventing blindness and other diseases, improving education or the flourishing of the arts, teaching languages, addressing profound issues like food and water safety, human trafficking or the concerns of indigenous peoples—there are so many things to learn from each other and work on together.

So Fulbright is big.

And the President appoints twelve people he hopes will know a thing or two to oversee the whole Fulbright effort worldwide—to figure out how to keep it lean and mean, worthy of your tax dollars, to spread the word about it, and to keep Fulbright a step ahead as the world gets more complicated, as education gets more expensive, as technology changes everything.

Let me tell you—we sure are lucky we have Betty Castor.

Of course, since the President has this prestigious and important international exchange and public diplomacy program, he wants his leadership to come from coast to coast.

Fair enough. And we’ve heard you loud and clear, Mr. President. Betty is from Tampa. I’m from Miami.

It will not surprise you to know that Betty Castor comes from a political family. Her father Joe was the mayor of the town in New Jersey where she grew up. A certain president named John F. Kennedy sent her as a young woman on a diplomatic mission to Uganda. Soon after, she took two dozen African school girls and young women on the first all-female expedition up Mt. Kilimanjaro. Just stop to think about that. How many of you have been to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro?


The air is thin, but you can see far. And Betty got everyone to follow her there. She has been scaling the peaks and staking out new ground ever since: politically, educationally, civically, philanthropically, internationally. Teacher, state legislator, Commissioner of Education, first woman elected to the Florida Cabinet, President of USF, Director of the Patel Center, the list goes on.

I know Betty through politics and education. But we are here with her family, we are here because of her passionate belief that no one should be left behind, everyone should be a person of vision, no matter what their physical sight. Because the vision needed for success is inner vision. It is the vision of possibility and the vision that others give us in guiding us as mentors, teachers, friends.

Let me end with a story that pulls it all back together—Betty honored as a Person of Vision, Betty as an international leader and Fulbright leader, Betty all the way back to her childhood.

There is a blind Fulbright scholar named Uyanga Erdenbold from Mongolia. It was a real struggle for her to get an education in her own country. But she did and, amazingly, she came to the United States and excelled in graduate school at Louisiana State. And while she was there, she was given a seeing eye dog. To her, it was a miracle. She’d never even heard of such a thing.


Neither had anyone back in Mongolia when she brought the dog back with her—which she did because this dog had become part of her. She needed it. Not only was the dog the eyes she didn’t have, it was her companion and friend.

Other Mongolians were very suspicious of this at first. Dogs are not pets there; they’re considered dirty and dangerous. But soon Uyanga and her dog became celebrities. Uyanga broke down fears. Like Betty Castor, she was fearless, she was willing to be the first to climb a mountain. A person of vision.

I was curious about Uyanga the Fulbright scholar and her dog, so I dug a little more into the story. It turns out her seeing eye dog was named after a generous, strong woman who was a mother to a strong daughter—a woman named Gladys—a name associated with swords, flowers, nobility, even disability—which tonight is all about preventing and addressing.

But Gladys—those guiding eyes—and this is a coincidence that almost brought tears to my eyes when I discovered it earlier today—happens to be the name of Kathy Castor’s grandmother and Betty Castor’s mom.

I told you there’s power in the house with these Castors!

So from the apple of Gladys’s eye to this brilliant educator, wonderful friend, proud fellow Floridian, stateswoman, extraordinary mom, mentor to me and so many—Betty Castor, thank you! Congratulations!

Related: St. Petersburg Tribute Fulbright smart power diplomacy education