This spring, Dr. Betty Caffo will step out on the stern of her sailboat, the Summer Semester. She will check the critical lines and the wind strength. And for the first time in a very long time, she won’t be Dr. Caffo, she won’t be Provost, professor, nurse, Assistant Vice President, Chair, or board member. No, she will just be Betty.
The last time Dr. Caffo was just Betty, she was sitting in a classroom in a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania. It was her senior year of high school and the teacher was going around the room asking everyone about their college plans. Caffo had never thought about college. Although she was always a good student, no one in her family had ever attended college.
Growing up on a farm, Caffo and her three siblings watched as their parents worked hard to provide for the family. “We were all very close,” she says. Her parents always made sure the children were given opportunities to shine. “We lived in the country but my parents would take me into town for ballet lessons,” recalls Caffo. “Well, that didn’t take because I”m not a dancer or graceful. But I was in 4H and Girl Scouts and it made me realize there was a wider world than one might conclude.”
So when the teacher asked her where she wanted to go, Caffo blurted out, “Penn State.” And when the teacher asked, “What do you want to be?” she responded, “a teacher.”
She didn’t know why she had said it. Maybe it was because she had been playing teacher since she was a little child, writing on the blackboard in perfect cursive. Whatever the case, this little exchange had gotten Caffo thinking. Maybe I should go to college after all.
Caffo never ended up going to Penn State. “I was a pragmatist even then,” she explains. “My parents didn’t have any money, and nobody was going to pay for me.” She remembers talking to her friend’s mother who was a nurse. “Back then you could go to nursing school in a hospital and it would cost you very little money.”
So she found herself in a white dress, nursing pin and cap, learning the ropes at Meyer Memorial Hospital in upstate New York. As soon as she treated her first patient, she realized this was where she was always meant to be. “I loved doing the actual treatments,” she recalls, “I liked helping with the breathing apparatus, giving injections and caring for the patient. The biggest challenge was to be organized. Because it’s hard work and you’re not just handling one patient at a time.”
Caffo admits that her first year of nursing was anxiety-producing. “You are making decisions that are life and death. And even for a number of years after I left clinical nursing, I would still have nightmares where I”d forgotten to take care of one of my patients and it was the end of the day.” Through nursing Caffo strengthened her organizational and time management skills. She also learned to juggle her home life and schoolwork with her demanding job as an Adult Health nurse.
Focusing on Family
Caffo still lights up when she talks about her husband, Albertt, of 44 years. The two met when they were in high school and were both active in the choir and school band. “He likes to tell people that I asked him out,” she says, referring to when she asked him to the Sadie Hawkins dance, a special dance in which the girls ask the boys. The two married young. “I was just 20 years old,” Caffo admits.
They moved to Ohio so that Albertt could pursue his master’s degree. Caffo soon was hired by Ohio State University Hospitals, where she worked night shifts as a general nurse, then a cardiac nurse, and later worked in neurology — specifically with patients with multiple sclerosis. While her husband pursued his master’s degree, Caffo decided to go back to school to earn her Bachelor of Science in Nursing, a degree that would help her rise through the ranks and take on more leadership roles.
It was a hectic time. “I distinctly remember sitting by my portable typewriter … typing up a school paper,” she recalls. “I was cooking a pot of spaghetti at the same time and then my youngest son, David, crawled through my legs. And I remember it all hitting me then — how am I doing all this?” Caffo struggled to juggle her home life — which included raising two boys (David and Nathan), working the night shift at Ohio State University Hospitals, and taking courses towards her Bachelor’s degree during the day. She believes she was able to accomplish it all because of three key things: “I was young and full of energy,” she says, “And because nursing is a great job in terms of flexibility.” She also couldn’t have done it without the support of her husband, who would trade off diaper duty while Caffo was rushing out the door to her evening shifts.
A New Career
In 1979, Caffo completed her Bachelor’s degree and spent a year working as a Public Health nurse. “I would have my little black bag and travel from home to home treating patients,” she says. She enjoyed it, but bigger things were in store.
The family moved from Ohio to Delaware when Albertt, accepted a job in the First State. Caffo, who was caring for her two young children, saw a small ad in the News Journal for an adjunct nursing professor at Delaware Technical and Community College. “I thought, this is perfect,” Caffo recalls. “Now I can work while still having time with my kids.”
While working at Delaware Technical and Community College, Caffo’s boss, Dr. Sandra Krafft, approached her about a possible new job opportunity. Dr. Krafft was heading to a small institution in New Castle named Wilmington College to spearhead the college’s first-ever nursing program. She asked Caffo if she would like to assist her. Caffo said yes and the two set off for the budding new college on Route 13 with high expectations.
But once Caffo arrived she was a little shocked at how much work lay ahead. “I remember my first day at Wilmington College. I had just left a set program, an organized program, and I walked in to an empty room,” she says. “There were no books, no notebooks, no files, nothing. So talk about building from the ground up.”
“It was a different college back then,” she explains. “We had very little money, the building which is now the People’s building was a single room that was known as the Nursing Classroom. We had all our classes there and sat on old metal folding chairs.”
As soon as the college approved the funding, Dr. Krafft and Caffo, who herself, had just received her Master of Science in Nursing degree from University of Delaware, began work on building a curriculum and recruiting students. “We went to about nine different colleges across the Eastern seaboard to see how their nursing programs were run,” explains Caffo. “We also studied standards and largely we learned what not to do.” Caffo and Dr. Krafft also held recruiting events and finally, in the fall of 1986, they opened their doors and accepted their first class of nursing students.
Stepping Back in the Classroom
The first course Caffo taught was Nursing 301 — Theories of Nursing Care. Seven students constituted her first class and Caffo remembers each of them fondly. Each of them was working while attending school, most were also juggling families and other responsibilities, and yet, they had made a commitment to better themselves through education. Caffo couldn’t help but think back to when she was in their position. “When the first potential nursing students came in to see me, I completely related. I knew what it felt like to be struggling with schoolwork, nursing nights and looking after kids. I think particularly because of my background, I was a good fit to come and help start this program.”
Caffo and Dr. Krafft worked feverishly to gain accreditation for the new nursing program. They had a year from the time the program was introduced to gain accreditation and they succeeded. “We owed it to these first seven students,” she says. “They were pioneers. They came here sight unseen and trusted our curriculum. So we were excited when we got them all accredited … all seven of them.”
One day, writing on the blackboard in perfect cursive, it suddenly hit Caffo — she had come full circle. All those years ago in her high school she had dreamed of being a teacher. Then she had put that dream on hold to follow other, equally as important dreams, and now here she was, standing in a classroom teaching a class.
What she loved most about teaching were the bonds she formed with her students. “Just the other night I went to a restaurant and I hear, “Hey Betty,” and in a booth next to me were four graduates of ours from 1992,” says Caffo. “We all hugged and talked a mile a minute to each other — that’s a real bond, where all these years later we can still catch up.”
Meanwhile as Dr. Krafft was leaving Wilmington College, Caffo was asked to step into a new role: Chair of Nursing. “I had a big decision to make when my boss left, and that was do I want to be an administrator,” says Caffo. “You see, as a nurse I had been a supervisor and a manager for almost my whole career. And although I gave care in those roles I was also doing administrative work. So I think I was naturally drawn to it.” Accepting the role and now earning her Ph.D. in Nursing Education from Widener University, Caffo worked on improving the nursing program through outcomes assessment, a process that has been adopted throughout the college as a way to measure student success.
Under Dr. Betty Caffo the Nursing program flourished, beginning with the Bachelor of Science Nursing program and growing to offer certificates, undergraduate and graduate degrees. “At one time, we were the single largest program in the college, and we were very proud of that,” she says. In the next few years she moved around the college, promoted to Assistant Vice President and Director of Institutional Research, before eventually accepting the position of second in command: Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs. It seemed whatever she touched turned to gold. Under her leadership and support Wilmington College blossomed, enrollment increased, new programs were developed, distance learning courses were offered, and the college even earned university status in 2007.
Yet Caffo never forgot her roots. “President Varsalona has a speech he gives every year at commencement,” she says. “He tells the graduates to ‘remember where you came from.'” And you can take that a number of ways, but for me it’s humility. You didn’t always have the things you have, you didn’t always make a lot of money, and so you always have to be humble.”
Saying Bon Voyage
Somewhere there’s an open sea that Caffo has been yearning to explore. When she’s not dressed up in a suit attending business meetings and speaking on behalf of the President, she is in shorts and a t-shirt on board her sailboat, the Summer Semester. “I started sailing in 1986,” she explains. Her husband had planned a cruise. “But it was not a big ship cruise, it was a trip where we would fly somewhere, rent a boat and sail the boat ourselves. That was my entre into sailing.” She didn’t actually learn to sail until 2011 and has been enjoying voyages ever since.
And now her sails are set for a new journey in her life. “I had it in my game plan for a long time now that I would not work past this age,” she says. “I believe there are so many great leaders here at Wilmington University and I think it is time to hand it over to them.” As Caffo and her husband set sail they are excited for the voyages ahead, which will include trips to the Caribbean and New England, but they will always remember the places they have been.
“I will remember all those little personal stories from Wilmington University, both with colleagues and with students,” says Caffo. “Those are probably what I”ll take away with me forever, and those are very meaningful to me. [Also], this institution has always kept me on my toes and I appreciated that. I’ve been here for 26 years — that’s almost half of my life — and so there will be many memories that I will take with me.”
But, for now, she’s going to just enjoy some time being Betty.