Local Obituaries

A Florida lawmaker defied ‘grandmotherly’ image

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As a clinical psychologist and Florida state representative, Betty Metcalf was used to challenging other people’s expectations.

When she ran for reelection in 1986, her challengers were quick to target the 65-year-old as too matronly and passive for another term. Opponent Bruce Hoffmann tagged her as a “nice lady” and offered to “just give her more time at home with her grandkids,” according to a Miami Herald article at the time.

But Metcalf, who had no grandchildren then, was undeterred. She broke a bone in her foot walking around her district campaigning, and her ads touted her as “one tough lady.”

She won that election, and it wasn’t the first time that Metcalf would prove to be a fighter against people who underestimated her strength. During her three terms in office, she was vocal in supporting mental health and community issues in her district during the 1980s.

“She was a people person by profession, but I think it came through that she really cared about the people in her district and in the state,” her daughter Christine Ng said.

Metcalf died in Cutler Bay June 23 at 95 of vascular dementia, Ng said.

Metcalf spent years lobbying lawmakers on behalf of mental health organizations and the League of Women Voters, which she led as state president, before deciding to run for office.

“She really liked learning about issues,” Ng recalled. “Trying to help people through the system — that’s how she saw government, helping people.”

That desire to help others was rooted in her parents, Herbert and Christine Letts, who both taught at the high school in rural South Jersey where Metcalf grew up. But Elizabeth “Betty” Metcalf, born in Carney’s Point, New Jersey, on Aug. 28, 1921, bucked her Methodist parents’ firm Republican beliefs, becoming a passionate Democrat. She studied psychology at Swarthmore College and finished a master’s degree at Yale in 1943, then went to the University of Iowa to get her Ph.D., graduating in 1950.

She eventually built up her career in Washington, where she worked for the District of Columbia’s Public Health Department and Juvenile Court, and her husband George worked in public health, Ng said.

The family moved to Florida — first to Jacksonville, then to Coral Gables when a friend of George Metcalf’s asked him to join a private practice in 1964.

In Florida, Metcalf pursued both her growing career in psychology and a laundry list of political and community causes. She opened her own private psychology practice, and found time to lead the League of Women Voters’ Florida chapter. She also helped helm the Girl Scout Council of Tropical Florida, the Alliance for Aging, and the Florida Endowment for the Humanities, and served on state boards evaluating the university system and nominating state Supreme Court justices.

She also took her daughter on monthly lobbying trips to Tallahassee. Metcalf was an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and engaged in fiery debates about the legislation before it failed to be ratified.

Ng recalled one debate her mother had with a woman who became deeply agitated arguing against the ERA: “She got so worked up and so agitated, but she kept making comments that painted herself as the ladylike one. ... She insinuated that you weren’t a lady if you supported the ERA.

“As she got more and more worked up, my mom got calmer and calmer and more sweet,” Ng said. After the debate, Metcalf told her daughter wryly, “I was raised to be a lady, and hell like that woman was going to out-lady me.”

But Metcalf was not content to remain on the sidelines as a lobbyist. After the 1980 Census led to redistricting, she saw a political opportunity, her daughter said.

“I’ve been lobbying the Legislature all these years. I’ve decided I’d like to have a vote,’” Ng remembered her saying.

In 1982, at age 61, Metcalf made the leap into public service, narrowly winning a campaign against real estate saleswoman Theresa Ashkar to represent District 114, parts of Miami, Coral Gables, unincorporated Miami-Dade County and South Miami.

She joined the Florida House the same year another female South Florida politician, then named Ileana Ros, was elected to state office for the first time. Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring from Congress next year after 38 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, praised Metcalf’s “steady grace” when they served together in the state Legislature.

“Betty represented her constituents well and always worked hard to know the ins and outs of the bills in committee and on the floor,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “It was a pleasure serving with her many years ago and she will be missed in our South Florida community.”

Metcalf pushed for more resources for children and senior citizens, including a bill that allocated $50,000 to a combined center for both groups, and securing $1 million for a health center. She helped pass legislation that put stricter regulations on day-care centers and that would license dietitians.

She also successfully fended off two sets of challengers in both of her reelection campaigns — many of whom tried to topple Metcalf by campaigning against her as out-of-her-depth or too gentle for the halls of Tallahassee.

Scott McPherson, a real estate salesman who challenged her in 1984, cast Metcalf as “very, very nice, but she does not understand the cause and effect relationship between what Tallahassee does to business and how that can hurt her own district.”

Metcalf, in both campaigns, was uncompromising about her ability to make change, even if others underestimated her friendly, welcoming exterior.

“I believe you can be strong and you don’t have to be unpleasant,” she told the Herald during her second reelection campaign.

Voters agreed both times.

In 1988, Metcalf chose not to run for a fourth term and to focus on her private clinical psychology practice, which she retired from in 1990.

“She was feeling at that moment as though the politics were getting more and more contentious, the money was getting tighter and tighter and people were fighting harder and harder for smaller slices of the pie,” Ng said. “That’s not the way she wanted to do business.”

Throughout her later years, Metcalf continued to believe in contributing to her community. She was an active member of the Rotary Club in Coral Gables for as long as she was able to attend meetings, said Terry Long, a longtime administrator for the club.

Even when Metcalf became ill, she “came to Rotary with her nurse” and attended meetings in her wheelchair, Long recalled. She described Metcalf as dedicated and talented, yet “humble and kind.”

That dedication to her community was honored after she left public office, too. In 1992, she was named a woman “of impact” by the Women’s History Coalition of Miami-Dade County, and in 1996 honored as a community “pioneer” by the Miami-Dade County Commission in 1996 for her work with children as a counselor and for her mentorship of younger women as a faculty member at the University of Miami.

In addition to Ng, Metcalf is survived by her granddaughter Jennifer. Her husband George died in 2007.

Services will be at 5 p.m. July 7 at Christ Congregational Church, 14920 SW 67th Ave., Palmetto Bay, with a reception to follow at the church.