‘She made a difference’: The remarkable legacy of Betty Salter

Before retiring, one woman helps change the lives of 750 families
By Phil Kloer

Rhonda Snell (right) reminisces with Betty Salter about moving into a new Habitat house in 2001, when she was a widow with two young children. Salter’s assistance extended far beyond housing, as she lent Snell clothes from her own closet for a job interview. “Betty Salter is like an angel to me,” Snell says. PENSACOLA HABITAT FOR HUMANITY/REBECCA KIDDRhonda Snell (right) reminisces with Betty Salter about moving into a new Habitat house in 2001, when she was a widow with two young children. ©Pensacola Habitat for Humanity/Rebecca Kidd

Rhonda Snell had already cleared so many hurdles. After her husband died, leaving her with two young children and no insurance, she found Habitat for Humanity, and in 2001 she moved into a new three-bedroom home in Pensacola, Fla.

But when she finally landed an interview for a better job, she had nothing appropriate to wear.

Betty Salter, then executive director of Pensacola Habitat for Humanity, made the kind of gesture that had won her the hearts of so many during her 30-year tenure: She offered Snell one of her own business suits.

“She went to her own closet and said, ‘Here, if you can use them, use them,” Snell recalled. “And they were nice. They weren’t out of style or anything.”

Snell got the job.

“Betty Salter is like an angel to me,” she said.

In addition to serving at Pensacola Habitat for three decades, Betty Salter also recruited her husband, James, as a full-time volunteer construction supervisor after he retired. He worked on roughly 400 of the houses built by Pensacola Habitat. PENSACOLA HABITAT FOR HUMANITYIn addition to serving at Pensacola Habitat for three decades, Salter also recruited her husband, James, as a full-time volunteer construction supervisor after he retired. Photo courtesy of Pensacola Habitat for Humanity

Now 79, Salter had a hand in building, repairing or rehabilitating approximately 750 Habitat homes over three decades. She retired in 2011 as the longest-serving volunteer executive director of any Habitat affiliate, never drawing a penny in salary from the first organizational meeting she attended in 1981 to her last day on the job.

In addition, she recruited her husband, James, as a full-time volunteer construction supervisor after he retired. He worked on roughly 400 of the houses built by Pensacola Habitat, some of them with Betty at his side, painting or laying sod.

‘Habitat what?’

In 1981, when Betty Salter read in the newspaper that some people in Pensacola were planning to start a Habitat for Humanity affiliate, she was already in her late 40s. She had launched two daughters, Jane and Gail, into adulthood and gone to work full time as a sewing instructor for the Singer Sewing Co.

Betty Salter, former executive director of Pensacola (Florida) Habitat for Humanity, rarely missed a dedication ceremony in her 30-year tenure. In 2007, she congratulates new homeowner Lottie Smith and her daughter. HABITAT FOR HUMANITY INTERNATIONAL/EZRA MILLSTEINSalter rarely missed a dedication ceremony in her 30-year tenure. In 2007, she congratulates new homeowner Lottie Smith and her daughter. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein

Habitat was young and relatively unknown, a long way from an established brand as a nonprofit builder of simple, decent, affordable homes.

“You’d say ‘Habitat for Humanity,’ and people would say, ‘Habitat what?’ It was not known at all,” Salter said.

“So I went to a planning meeting, and of course they were desperate for anybody to do anything. It wasn’t long before they gave me a (volunteer) job, and I stayed there ever since.”

In the early years, the affiliate had almost no money and mainly repaired roofs. Mary Fleming, who served on the Pensacola Habitat board of directors with Salter in the mid-1980s, recalled that for one fundraiser, board members stood at intersections holding buckets and asked drivers to throw in their spare change.

“You knew you couldn’t help some people, and I hated that,” Salter said of that start-up era. “We just didn’t have the funds. I remember we visited this one woman who needed a new house, and her roof was leaking so bad she had four garbage cans in the middle of a room, lined with plastic, and each one was half-full of water.

“You could just smell the mold, and she was having trouble breathing. And we couldn’t build for her. There were many times like that.”

The affiliate, which had built just three houses in its first few years, needed an executive director but couldn’t afford to pay one. Salter volunteered. Within five years, Pensacola was building 20 houses a year — five years after that, 40 a year.

“Betty worked at least 60 hours a week, six days a week, for years and years,” Fleming said. “She’s a typical Southern woman — that steel hand in the velvet glove who gets things done. Betty did whatever needed to be done.”

Salter admits being driven.

“It was a mission with me,” she said. “I’ve had people say it was hard to tell me no. But I think it was God. We couldn’t have operated without God. It was a miracle here.”

‘Spirit of Pensacola’

Although retired as executive director, Salter is still on the board of directors at Pensacola Habitat for Humanity, and she comes into the office from time to time.

In 2006, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Women in Business from the Pensacola News Journal. Pensacola State College established the Betty and Jim Salter Scholarship for graduates of Pensacola Boys Base, a residential treatment program for teens with criminal records. (Pensacola Habitat and the Boys Base formed a partnership in the 1990s in which youths with the program worked on Habitat homes.)

And in 2010, the Salters were the 2010 winners of the “Spirit of Pensacola” award from the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

Former U.S. first lady Rosalynn Carter, a longtime Habitat supporter, wrote a moving tribute to Betty Salter when she won the “Spirit” award:

“Of all the accolades a person can earn, undoubtedly the most precious — the most lasting — is to say, ‘She made a difference.’ ”

The difference Salter made is most evident in the lives of people like Rhonda Snell and her family. More than a decade later, Snell is still in the house and still working at the job. Her children, Devon and Dominique, are in college, which she attributes to the hand up that Habitat gave her family years ago.

One of the last Habitat home dedications Salter attended as executive director was for Caridad and Floyd Jones. The Joneses had been living with Floyd’s mother and other relatives — six people in a two-bedroom house. Their son, Anthony, then 7, had to sleep on a rollaway bed in the kitchen and was struggling in school. Since moving into the family’s Habitat house, his grades have improved.

“Miss Betty would always tell me, ‘I know you’re going to succeed in the program,’” Caridad recalled. “She was like my cheerleader. She’s an angel in our midst.”