Editor’s Note: In honor of National Women’s History Month, Norfolk District salutes women of character, courage and commitment.
NORFOLK, Va. – Betty Grey Waring was her father’s daughter.
On the banks of the Rappahannock River, near Tappahannock, Va., she followed her father around the family farm, learning from him, helping him work on projects at their home and make repairs around the farm.
On Betty Grey’s 500-acre family farm, her father, William Justin Waring, coaxed corn, wheat and soy beans from the ground and the Angus cattle he raised and sold roamed and called out their low songs to each other. Betty Grey’s father, uncle and grandfather also ran a canning business nearby, which her grandfather had established just after the Great Depression. The business employed locals and primarily grew and sold black-eyed peas and tomatoes.
In the moments Betty Grey wasn’t under her father’s apprenticeship, she spent her time outdoors – she’d wander down to the river and swim or explore the river banks, and spend hours crabbing and fishing.
“During the summer, I couldn’t wait to get down to the river with my crab lines and fish heads or chicken necks for bait. I’d carry my net, too, to scoop up crabs,” Waring said.
Cars, animals and fixing things had a special place in Betty Grey’s curious heart. Her family recognized that she was a wanderer, an explorer.
“When she was just a tyke, Betty Grey was always into everything,” said Anne Frost, Betty Grey’s older sister.
“When we went shopping with our mother, I was the one who held on to mom’s hand for dear life -- Betty Grey would wander off somewhere in the store until she decided to reappear,” Anne Frost said. “My grandfather gave us both nicknames. Mine was ‘honey,’ because I reminded him of my grandmother who had died many years before, and Betty Grey’s was ‘jitterbug.’ To this day, I can’t think of a better description of my sister’s personality.”
Betty Grey studied at Center Cross Elementary in Tappahannock, with 15 other students in her class – a room, with simple wooden desks and plain tile floors. There was no air conditioning, so they opened the crank-style windows when it got warm. There were no computers; they learned from books and the teacher’s instructions on the blackboard. She enjoyed the benefit of a small class’s individualized attention, honing her English and math skills. She then enrolled at St. Margaret’s Episcopal High School on the banks of the Rappahannock River, an all-girls private school.
It was there that her affinity for mathematics, the dancing numbers and morphing figures, began to connect to things she heard from around the family.
Betty Grey’s uncle worked as a mechanical engineer in Washington, D.C. He would fascinate her with stories of how the Capitol was built – the intricacies that were unfolded as he installed central air conditioning in the main capitol building. His daughter, Betty Grey’s first cousin, became an engineer, the first Waring knew from that profession.
“When Betty Grey was ready to enter college, and expressed the desire to go to engineering school, my mother thought she might be taking on a bit much,” Anne Frost said. “She advised Betty Grey to major in math and then see what she wanted to do afterwards. Betty Grey would have none of that…she was going to engineering school, and had made up her mind.”
Betty Grey had a never-give-up work ethic that was forged over years on the farm as she watched her father, uncle and grandfather work the kind of bone-deep, exhausting labor that awarded no holidays, no sick time, and no holiday bonuses.
But Betty Grey said she had momentary doubts as she saw that there were so few women in engineering.
“I thought, ‘what am I getting myself into?” Waring said.
A high school career day at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville gave her the shove she needed.
“I was so impressed with UVA and their engineering program, and how the faculty and students there welcomed and encouraged me,” she said.
Betty Grey applied for and was accepted into UVA’s engineering school in 1974; just two years after the all-male university opened its doors to women.
Despite rooming with her cousin through her sophomore year, Betty Grey said she was still homesick. There’s a reason writers tend to write nostalgically of a childhood near rivers or lakes or the ocean – waters tend to haunt.
Her years of splashing in the Rappahannock colored her engineering pursuits – she graduated with a civil engineering degree with an environmental concentration and, later, a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering – her love of the river translated into a love of the environment and waterways.
After earning her masters at the University of Florida in 1980, she considered staying there and working in the state that had waterways like the human body has capillaries. Instead, she returned home to help her mother, but she did know this: she wanted to work for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Betty Grey arrived at Norfolk District later that year for her internship, just as construction crews began pouring concrete for the district’s new headquarters, the Waterfield Building.
“Every day for many weeks, all you heard was the constant pounding of pilings as the construction crew laid the headquarters’ foundation,” Waring said.
Housed on the second floor of the old fort’s barracks Building 2, Betty Grey and her team, surrounded by old-time calculators, pencils and stacks of graph paper and cartographic drawings enjoyed camaraderie that she said is unmatched to this day.
“We were such a tight-knit group. Six of us packed into one room with no partitions, and no personal computers. We bounced everything off each other, face-to-face, no emails,” Betty Grey said.
Betty Grey was fast developing a reputation as a fair, technically competent advocate of district projects, always advancing environmental considerations.
Richard Klein arrived at Norfolk District two years before Betty Grey, and worked with her in the Dredging Management Branch.
She more than anybody, Klein said, followed through on many of management's visions for the navigation program. “In fact, she was “ghost-writer” for many of the position papers and presentations that the branch and division chiefs would need to advocate the dredging management program,” he said.
Betty Grey’s environmental advocacy extended to small, shallow-draft maintenance dredging projects on the Eastern Shore; placement sites for “beneficial use of dredged material;” restoration and creation of wetlands and oyster grounds; shoreline protection; and restoration of submerged aquatic vegetation.
Nancy R. Little isn’t surprised that her childhood buddy, Betty Grey, is a highly successful engineer and leader in the Army Corps of Engineers.
“We played together as children, were in grade school and high school together and have remained friends all these years. Always polite, gracious and determined, Betty Grey exudes calm leadership,” Little said.
Through her work, Betty Grey rose to the Operation’s Branch Technical Support Section chief in 2002. In 2006, Betty Grey was selected as chief of Operations Branch. With her team of fellow engineers, physical scientists, geographers, surveyors, design specialists and administrative and technical support cadre, she ensures the smooth and safe operation and maintenance of the district’s diverse stable of navigation and flood-control projects.
Klein said Betty Grey proved to be a strong advocate of the Operations Branch.
“I’m proud of the way she has represented the district regionally within the North Atlantic Division and nationally,” he said. “She has a deserved reputation for having a passion for what she does.”
Betty Grey’s love of the environment branches out into nurturing life around the district.
Just off the district’s pier that juts into the Elizabeth River is an oyster reef Betty Grey and volunteer team members here helped build. She often made the walk around historic Fort Norfolk, which is just outside the Waterfield Building’s doors, to participate in the team that scrubs the dregs of the river off baby spat floating in cages nearby. When the baby oysters are ready, team members move them to the reef.
Around the fort itself, a black feral cat slinks around the white-washed brick buildings that date back to 1794.
Betty Grey, a life-long cat lover, noticed cats at the fort soon after she arrived – they padded near the old rail cars and around the back of the fort – and she decided she’d feed and care for the cats. She teamed with several other employees to establish an all-volunteer Feral Cat Management Program.
The program linked up with a non-profit that helped trap, spay and neuter the cats, Betty Grey said. PETA initially helped with funding as district employees volunteered their time, donated food and money for veterinary services. Through the height of the program, Fort Norfolk was home to nearly 60 feral cats, including a few strays.
Betty Grey and her husband, Jack Bryan, adopted two of the cats, while Blackie remains the lone Fort Norfolk feral cat.
“It has been one of my greatest pleasures to take care of these wonderful animals over the years,” Betty Grey said. “When I arrived at work each morning, the cats ran to greet me with their tails up high. Their love was unconditional, which matched that of our great group of caretakers here.”
Today, in Betty Grey’s office overlooking the Elizabeth River, she’s working and managing survey efforts after a freighter ran aground in the river. Since ship groundings can be the result of or cause shoals or bumps in the channel, she needs to get a survey team out to the area quickly to perform a hydrographic survey of the river bottom.
Shoals in the channel can restrict or halt navigation of the large vessels, including aircraft carriers that call on the Port of Hampton Roads. It can mean millions of dollars a day of lost commerce or threaten national security and safety. The survey team deploys quickly and their results confirm that the channel is clear and safe for vessel passage. Another crisis averted!
Betty Grey Waring no longer splashes around the river, care-free. But, her strong presence and leadership is still felt in the tide of work that comes with committed stewardship of our national waterways.
Each year, March is designated as National Women’s History Month. According to the National Women’s History Project, this year’s theme, “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage and Commitment,” honors the extraordinary and often unrecognized determination and tenacity of everyday women.
“Against social convention and often legal restraints,” project officials said, “women have created a legacy that expands the frontiers of possibility for generations to come. They have demonstrated their character, courage and commitment as mothers, educators, institution builders, military, business, labor, political and community leaders, relief workers, women religious, and CEOs. Their lives and their work inspire girls and women to achieve their full potential and encourage boys and men to respect the diversity and depth of women’s experience.”