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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Vestal: Quiet woman had big heart, loved giving

Barbara Bethards loved Christmas.

She’d gather gifts with personal touches. Items that reflected her friends’ pets, hobbies, passions. Charm bracelets. Pet photos. Cross-stitching. Bags filled with emblems of thoughtfulness.

“There would be 10 or 12 or 15 things in her gift bags and they were very unique and just for you,” said Lori Freshman, a co-worker and one of Bethards’ best friends. “She always had a gift for every single person in the office.”

Bethards died last summer at 58, after a sudden and shocking illness, but her giving hasn’t come to an end. Washington State University announced this week that she quietly left the school more than $2.5 million for science scholarships – a wonderful gift for outstanding students, and an anomaly in this era of big, showy donations to colleges that often have an indirect benefit, at best, for the young people in classrooms.

She also left a quarter-million for the Spokane Humane Society, where she was a longtime volunteer. And there’s a decent chance that other good-works organizations received a generous gift from Bethards without anyone knowing. Friends say she always played things close to the vest – she was private and self-effacing, while being generous with her time and effort. She was intelligent and funny, but quiet. Many who knew her were surprised about the WSU gift – by its size and its focus.

“I had no idea she was interested in science,” said Jill Rasler, a friend and co-worker at Sacred Heart. “But then most of us who worked with her – people who worked with her for a long time – didn’t know she had a law degree. She just didn’t talk about it.”

Freshman, who knew Bethards for almost 30 years, said she was one of just a couple of people who knew Bethards had money. But even she was shocked when told about the size of the WSU donation.

“Oh my,” she said. “OK. Well, I didn’t know that.

“You would never known she had that kind of money. … Nobody would have ever, ever, ever guessed that Barb was a multimillionaire.”

The money apparently came from an inheritance, investments and a frugal lifestyle. Her father had stipulated in his will that he wanted to support scholarships at WSU.

Bethards grew up in Spokane, the only daughter of an ophthalmologist and pharmacist. She graduated from Shadle Park High, then earned an economics degree in 1974 at WSU. She went on to graduate from Gonzaga Law School, but a law career was not for her, Freshman said, and Bethards eventually trained herself in medical transcription. She worked as a transcriptionist at Sacred Heart for 30 years.

“She was a really smart gal,” Freshman said. “I don’t think she wanted the stress of a high-profile life. She could have been a CEO, but she chose a simpler life.”

She was devoted to her parents, her dogs and animal welfare, and to various crafting projects, from quilting to scrapbooking, friends say. She loved to travel, visiting China and Europe and making regular visits to Hawaii. She donated time and money to causes she believed in – primary among them was the Humane Society.

“Barb was an amazing volunteer,” said Dave Richardson, executive director of the organization. “She formed an amazing bond with her four-legged friends, and I think we formed an equally strong bond with her.”

She had two dogs of her own over the years – Eddie and Seska, a couple of “wonderful, mutty Spokaloon mutts,” Richardson said – and worked hard on the Humane Society’s annual Parade of Paws fundraiser.

“She helped organize that thing from top to bottom,” he said. “She was very detail-oriented – she had a real talent for bringing order to chaos.”

She had a brief marriage, but her life centered on her parents, her friends and her pets. Her parents, Bill and Gaye – both of whom were science students at WSU – died several years ago.

One day last summer, Bethards complained of not feeling well and left work early. Within a day, she was in intensive care in a coma, and she never recovered. Her friends would not discuss the specifics of her illness, noting her penchant for privacy, but said it came on suddenly.

“She got sick and had surgery and never woke up, basically,” Freshman said.

She died July 21.

WSU announced her gift Tuesday. While colleges routinely tout donations in the millions of dollars, few of them are targeted solely for scholarships. They often go toward stadiums, research centers, new wings of this or that enterprise – gifts that usually are accompanied by large checks and prominent plaques.

Bethards’ gift, on the other hand, will help students directly for years to come. The money will support Regents scholarships, which are used to entice outstanding Washington high school students to stay here for college.

“I’ve been in higher ed administration for 35 years … and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a donation for scholarships of $2.5 million,” said John Fraire, WSU’s vice president for student affairs and enrollment management.

It took a few months after Bethards’ death for the donation to become public, but the timing could not have been better. It seems unlikely that Bethards would have wanted any attention for this. But as a lover of Christmas, she’d have to approve.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or
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