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'The Hug Lady' Holds All Troops Close to Her Heart

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The nickname is pretty self-explanatory: Bette Rose Bowers is known as "The Hug Lady." And as a five-year volunteer at the major R&R hub of Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Bette Rose has plenty of love and admiration to share with our returning and deploying service men and women.

Some volunteers are there with handshakes and back-pats but famously, Bette Rose is there with an embrace.

"I'm gonna hug 'em; that's me," she says. "I am a sucker for a man in uniform…I love the military. It is part of who I am. It is part of my nature."

Bette Rose and the other volunteers at airports around the country also know that their presence can be even more important during this time of year.

"The holidays are a little more poignant," Bette Rose says. "For those leaving it can be a little sadder and obviously those coming home are elated. I noticed that at Thanksgiving with the ones coming home, too. The ones that are coming on the 16th are home for Christmas and New Year's and the ones departing have already had their holidays.

"For most of these troops, this is not their first deployment…They know the drill. They're good troops, good folks. I'm really proud of them."

For Bette Rose, every one of those homecomings is special and some scenarios provide a little extra emotion.

"Two things: One, when a parent is there and has a baby and it's the first time a mom or dad sees the child. If that doesn't bring a tear to your eye, you're made of stone. And two, when you see a little boy or girl…when they are 3, 4, 5, 6…when they see their mommy or daddy come up that ramp and they just run into their arms…I just stand in awe of it.

"They're passing just briefly through my life, but I can still see those families when I close my eyes. It stays with you. They're very personal [moments], when everyone's watching. Then they start clapping and crying. I can feel myself smiling when I think about it."

And for those who might not have family awaiting their arrival in Atlanta, Bette Rose and Co. are there.

"We get a lot of comments on the welcome they see. They genuinely seem pleased to see someone when they come up that ramp. When they come up, we're waiting for them," Bette Rose says.

As with most things from Bette Rose, her dedication to the military is not just lip service. Her grandfather and father both served; her husband is a West Point graduate but is retired from the Air Force; her brother was in the Army after graduating from West Point, as well; her son was in the Army briefly and a grandson is currently serving with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg. Coincidentally, it was her brother who matched her up with her would-be husband on a blind date. Well, maybe not totally "blind" since Bette Rose contends that he knew who she was and prodded her brother to fix them up. "I tell [my brother] he sold me into bondage," she says, laughing. But 47 years of marriage later, "I guess it worked out all right."

And her relationship with the USO has worked out all right, as well. CEO of USO Georgia Mary Lou Austin cannot say enough about the effect Bette Rose has had on her organization and the troops.

"She goes out of her way to help them. She's always willing to come in, even on a minute's notice." To prove that point, Mary Lou recounted recently reaching Bette Rose by phone when she was at a Waffle House. All it took was a moment and she was on her way. "Gimme 20 minutes and I can be down there," Bette Rose says, crediting more her proximity to the airport for her goodness rather than her giving nature.

Mary Lou also says her contributions go much further than being known as "The Hug Lady," including being appointed to the board that organizes their annual golf tournament and "serving out of her own pocketbook, as well, if you know what I mean."

"She just got tagged with it, but she does so much more," Mary Lou says. "She's spotted on the street [for being 'The Hug Lady'], but she's a woman of many talents. She's a great ambassador."


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