Cowlings work to ensure others get to experience Chautauqua


Bettsy and Ellis Cowling. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Sarah Gelfand | Staff Writer

In the summer of 1954, Bettsy Cowling ran across the little red bridge behind the Amphitheater in the pink dress and white apron that constituted the uniform of Athenaeum waitresses in those days. On the other side, her future husband, Ellis Cowling, waited for her.

“She came running towards me in her pretty pink dress and even after 55 happy years of marriage, that is one of our fondest memories” Ellis said.

Back then, Bettsy was working at the Athenaeum Hotel for a fifth year during her summer vacations from Syracuse University, where she and Ellis met.  Ellis would come up on the weekends and stay in the turret of the Aldine; the two said their first summer at Chautauqua is when their relationship blossomed.

Returning to Chautauqua for their 25th and 40th wedding anniversary, they decided to put down roots here and have come back ever since. Bettsy and Ellis said their time at Chautauqua “recharges their batteries” for their busy lives during the rest of the year. They reside in Raleigh, N.C. There, Bettsy is a full-time volunteer, serving on several boards of non-profit organizations including the Girl Scouts and Habitat for Humanity; Ellis is a professor, teaching first at Yale University and most recently as university distinguished professor-at-large at North Carolina State University.

The Cowlings’ interests and connections within the Institution have grown during their time here.

“We were originally ‘consumers’ of Chautauqua’s cultural, educational, recreational and religious programming,” Ellis said. “In the last of these four areas, we found special interest in Karen Armstrong’s ‘Charter for Compassion’ and Joan Brown Campbell’s Abrahamic Initiative, which we support with checks we write to the Department of Religion every Sunday.”

Ellis — who holds degrees in environmental science and forestry, as well as an elected membership in the National Academy of Sciences — has a passion for the re-emergence of the sciences at Chautauqua. He noted that the literary element of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle certainly is present at the Institution, but the scientific element is missing. He said that one day he hopes to see an Edison House on the grounds to perpetuate permanent scientific thought and dialogue at Chautauqua.

In 2008, Ellis contacted Ralph Cicerone, president of the NAS, about one of Chautauqua’s theme week’s that year: “Darwin and Linnaeus: Their Influence on Our View of the Natural World.” Their communications resulted in the NAS donating 4,000 copies of one of their publications to the Institution. The relationship Ellis facilitated between the NAS and Chautauqua continued, and in 2010, the NAS donated another publication for Chautauqua’s week on “Powering the Future.”

“I hope this relationship will become an enduring partnership between the science-related 10:45 lecture topics at Chautauqua and the NAS’s ‘Public Understanding of Science’ programs,” Ellis said.

When the Cowlings bought two condominium units on the bottom floor of the Longfellow in 1998, they decided that each year they would bring friends who had never been to the Institution to stay with them. Over the course of 13 years, they have hosted dozens of first-time visitors to the grounds, including their own children and grandchildren. Many of the Cowlings’ past guests now are returning Chautauquans.

“Our first guest was the assistant chaplain at Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse who introduced us to each other at the chapel,” Bettsy said. “She always wanted to go to Chautauqua. By the time we bought property here, however, she was quite elderly and living in a home in Washington, D.C. She was just so excited to be here and told everyone she met that she was our ‘matchmaker.’”

Though they are longtime donors to the Chautauqua Fund and the MSFO scholarships, the Cowlings decided to take an additional step in supporting the Institution this year by making the Chautauqua Foundation a beneficiary of Bettsy’s individual retirement account.

“We hope more of our fellow Chautauquans will not only make annual contributions to the Chautauqua Fund but will also consider making a planned gift to the Chautauqua Foundation,” Ellis said.

“We really believe in what Chautauqua stands for; there’s a longevity here,” Bettsy said. “Some organizations you could give to, and they’d be here today and gone tomorrow, but Chautauqua has stayed the course for many years, and it’s our hope that it will continue for our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.”

Several years ago, when the little red bridge fell into disrepair, Ellis made a personal appeal to Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker.

“Ellis said to Tom Becker, ‘I’d be happy to buy the paint if you can get that bridge painted,’” Bettsy said. “And the bridge got painted.”

Caring for that little red bridge, which holds such a strong memory in the history of the Cowlings’ marriage, is representative of the many ways the Cowlings give back to Chautauqua. Bettsy and Ellis Cowling take an active role — financially and intellectually — to perpetuate a meaningful Chautauqua experience in the lives of others, for many years to come.

By making Chautauqua a beneficiary of Bettsy’s IRA, the Cowlings are members of the Eleanor B. Daugherty Society, a group of individuals who have included Chautauqua in their estate plans.  For more information on how you might include Chautauqua in your future plans, please contact Karen Blozie, director of gift planning, at 716-357-6244 or email