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A Tribute to a Trailblazer: Remembering Betty Park

In 2009, Betty Park reluctantly retired for a second time from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). She'd first tried in 1980, when she noticed that others her same age, 63, were beginning to give up work. However, her commitment to her career overwhelmed her urge to succumb to peer pressure, and after several months away, Park resumed her work as a senior attorney at HUD. She didn't retire again until she was 92 years old.

Park began her law education at the University of Oregon School of Law in 1937 when less than 3 percent of law school enrollment was comprised of women. She did not let this reality sway her desire to succeed in becoming a lawyer—upon graduation she was the Law Review Case Note Editor, a Mortar Board member, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, inducted into the Order of the Coif and first in her class.

According to Susan Park, Betty’s daughter, during her time at Oregon Law she was also mentored by Wayne Morse, who was a strong influence on her academically and ultimately became the godfather to her oldest son.

Park continued to pursue legal studies, and in 1941, graduated with an L.L.M from Columbia University where she studied under Professor Walter Gelhorn, one of the nation’s leading law authorities.

In July 1941, Park began her federal law career at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of the Solicitor, shortly before the attacks on Pearl Harbor. During that time there were increasing opportunities for women due to the number of men being called to serve in the military. This opened many doors for Park because women were desperately needed in Washington to fill positions vacated by men in the military.

Park began her distinguished career in federal housing in 1942 through positions in the Office of Price Administration and the Office of the Expeditor. She then became a founding member of the HUD Section 202 program, which was an elderly housing project designed to allow residents to live independently.

“The 202 program was what she was most passionate about,” said Susan Park. “While being presented with an award at the American Bar Association, my mother said that her biggest hope was that the [202] program would continue in years to come. That’s all she wanted.”

Later, Park worked to expand the 202 program to include protection for the disabled, as many elderly are also disabled. In addition, Park was key in developing the “pet rule,” which gave tenants in elderly housing the right to enjoy the companionship of small pets. This particular case showcases Park’s love of animals; she was involved in various humane societies and animal-oriented organizations. Although the pet rule was particularly controversial among housing managers, Park succeeded in her efforts and pets are now allowed in all 202 and public housing programs.

“At HUD, no one can recall when her legal opinions were overturned,” said Susan Park. “She was a purist from the very beginning until 2009 when she retired.”

Park committed 68 years of her life to public service, which makes her one of the longest serving U.S. federal employees in history and somewhat of an icon. In fact, when Michelle Obama visited HUD during the first year of the Obama administration, her only request was that she meet and speak with Betty Park.

Over the course of her career, Park earned a reputation for her steadfast dedication to her work, which in turn won her many awards including: HUD’s Second Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. award; National Women’s History Month 2005 honoree; and the 2009 Michael Scher award, from the American Bar Association’s Affordable Housing Forum.

According to Vickie Longosz, Park’s long-time friend and mentee, Park worked for many tough individuals throughout her career; however, she was never afraid to stand up for herself.

“She was always respectful, but she was certainly not intimidated,” said Longosz.

Oregon Law » Oregon Lawyer Online » Autumn 2012 » A Tribute to a Trailblazer: Remembering Betty Park
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