A lifelong geology enthusiast with childhood aspirations of being an orchestra conductor, Betsy VanderLey, the newly elected District 1 Orange County Commissioner, never foresaw her future involvement in politics.
Betsy VanderLey formed a habit of beginning her day at 5:30 in the morning with a hot mug of coffee and a Bible long before she was elected to fill the District 1 seat in the Orange County Board of Commissioners Nov. 8.
A deeply religious woman, mother of three and lifelong geology enthusiast, VanderLey rarely spared a thought to the world of politics, suspecting politicians to be motivated by self-interest or money. Her outlook has changed much since then, but she still views her own involvement in politics as a simple means to solve others’ problems.
The Oakland resident had her first brush with political affairs around 15 years ago while aiding her father, Jon VanderLey — a former Oakland mayor — with small tasks. She’d help write newsletters for him but steadily grew more involved in bigger projects, even organizing the first Oakland Heritage Festival nearly 20 years ago.
With a full-time job as a business development consultant that helps engineers and land developers with strategic planning, VanderLey soon became more active in local government. She eventually joined Orange County’s Planning and Zoning Commission, the first official step toward her eventual election victory for the District 1 seat.
“I wasn’t surprised,” recalled Rachel Chiles, 31, upon hearing her mother planned to run for the District 1 seat. “She always seems to be into one thing or the next. You know, community service or Rotary. She sat on several nonprofit boards.
“She constantly seems to be going and doing things out in the community, so it’s not surprising.”
A LOVE OF MUSIC
Born in Traverse City, Michigan, VanderLey first set foot in the Sunshine State when she was 12. Her father had the family move to Florida due to a job involving the construction of Walt Disney World. VanderLey also got her first official job at Disney, working in food services within Adventureland.
She soon saved up enough to buy her own car – a red 1967 Pontiac Lemans, she remembers dearly. In an act of her growing independence, she took a three-day solo trip to Michigan, but not before her concerned father installed a CB radio to keep in touch in case of an emergency.
“So I came home and told my parents I was going to go to Michigan for a few weeks and see relatives up there,” VanderLey recollected. “So I got in my car and drove up to Michigan at 16. I can’t imagine anyone being OK with a 16-year-old girl doing that now.”
As a teenager, VanderLey also harbored a love of music that continues today. She plays the piano and often sings to herself in the shower or in her car. Her No. 1 rule, whenever others come along for a ride, is to "never talk over the songs."
“I love singing ‘Handel’s Messiah,’ ” said VanderLey on her most favorite song to sing. “I actually sang it in the Orlando Choral Society for many years. So I still sing that, especially at Christmastime.”
Her adoration of music was sparked at the age of 5. Her parents took her to an orchestral concert hosted by a local world-renowned college preparatory school for classical musicians. World-renowned pianist Van Cliburn was playing Rachmaninoff’s No. 2 piano concerto; the day remains a fond memory for VanderLey.
“I was absolutely hooked on it. It was kind of magical,” she reminisced. “The lake behind the birch trees, the sun setting on the lake and the outdoor band show and they were all in their tails, it was just — it was fairyland, and the music really caught me. So ever since then, I’ve been a huge music lover. And when I was a teenager, I had decided I was going to be the first female conductor of the New York Philharmonic.”
A LOVE OF ROCKS
Although VanderLey never did quite pursue the career path of a symphony orchestra conductor, she did venture into a study she found equally fascinating: geology. The life of a geologist – analyzing rock formations and volcanoes in different locations – appealed to her.
She enrolled in Valencia College to get a geology degree but discontinued her studies at the end of her sophomore year to raise her first child. However, she now has an extensive collection in her home to appease her interest in rocks – a collection her kids jokingly titled “mom’s collection of dead stuff.”
”She loves artifacts,” Chiles said of her mom. “She loves fossils and was always very interested in geology and the study of rock formations and what that means to the area. I mean, she’s always buying fossils constantly. I feel like they fill up the house. And we constantly tell her to stop, but it just continues to grow; there are fossils on every surface.”
The collection has taken VanderLey a few decades to build and includes all sorts of fossilized rocks, including shark jaws and turtle shells she finds while hiking or purchases in outdoor markets.
A LOVE OF COMMUNITY SERVICE
The lifelong geology enthusiast and secret rock’n’roll fan also holds firm beliefs regarding community. VanderLey believes helping other community members in any way they can should be normalized behavior rather than the exception.
This is a philosophy she hopes to portray in real life in her duties as commissioner and a message she wishes to convey in a book she hopes to publish in the future titled “Standing in the Gap.” The book, she shared, would focus on how she was raised and the principles she believes society has lost but can easily regain.
“That’s the whole essence of community: it’s that you go through life together and you help each other and prop each other up when times are tough,” VanderLey said, referring to the time when West Orange community supported her family after her brother’s death in 2002. “So I wouldn’t say that it’s selfless, I would say it’s just how communities are supposed to behave.”
“That’s really satisfying – when you know you can solve a potentially difficult situation for someone. I don’t really think about what I do as politics. I think of it as serving my community.”
She suggests people should be motivated to get involved in politics because they want to solve others’ problems, a goal she shared was her own reasoning for running in the election.
“It affords you the opportunity to solve some problems,” VanderLey said. “You know how you’re driving down the road going, ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something about’ whatever — a traffic signal that needs to go in or whatever it might be. The reason for doing it is not to be prominent; the reason for doing it is to be of service — to solve problems for people that don’t know how to navigate the system.”
Since becoming active in local government, VanderLey has helped several members in the community.
When it was brought to her attention that a school bus stop was located in a dangerous spot, she helped get it relocated. When she came across a Gotha resident with an obvious flooding issue in his yard he said began with the construction of a nearby neighborhood 10 years ago, she used her connections in the county to help get his problem fixed.
“That’s really satisfying, when you know you can solve a potentially difficult situation for someone,” VanderLey added. “I don’t really think about what I do as politics. I think of it as serving my community.”
Contact Gabby Baquero at [email protected].