When Joan Showalter ’55 spoke, people listened.
Lawrence B. Pulley ’74 said that’s because of the trailblazing CBS executive’s commanding and charismatic presence — and because her advice was on the mark.
Showalter rose through the ranks at the network to became senior vice president of human resources during a time when few women occupied high-level positions. Pulley recalls feeling nervous and anxious the first few times he talked with her when he was beginning his term as dean of the Raymond A. Mason School of Business in 1998.
“I knew that counsel would be coming,” he said. “I also knew it would be good counsel. I spoke with her as often as I could. I learned through my conversations with Joan over the years that you need to stay clearly focused on setting a vision and thinking about how we can make progress on a day-to-day basis.”
For Showalter, who passed away Feb. 12 at age 88, Pulley became a treasured friend and confidant, as well as a liaison to her beloved alma mater. She maintained connections to the university by serving on the boards of the W&M Foundation and Business School Foundation.
She and Karen Beldegreen, an honorary W&M alumna who was a longtime friend of Showalter’s and a former colleague at CBS, formed close relationships with other William & Mary alumni during dozens of Alumni Journeys to destinations such as Kenya, Italy, Egypt and Russia. Beldegreen died at age 71 on June 24, 2021.
Through their estates, Showalter and Beldegreen provided a $14.4 million bequest to establish four new graduate and undergraduate scholarships at the business school and expand the existing Lura Dixon Showalter Merit MBA Fellowship established in 1994 in honor of Showalter’s mother.
With the new gift, William & Mary surpasses the goal of raising $350 million for scholarships, an effort that continued after the For the Bold campaign concluded in June 2020. Scholarships remain a top fundraising priority for the university.
“This truly is transformational in what it will do for the students who will now be afforded the opportunity to come here and pursue a degree, which will put them on a different trajectory in their careers,” Pulley said, adding that Showalter was especially interested in helping underrepresented students and scholars from Virginia who otherwise might not be able to attend William & Mary.
Two of the new scholarships are named for Showalter and Beldegreen. The other two are named for their fathers, Edwin Dove Showalter and Ernest Beldegreen. Kate DeBruin, executor of the estates for both Showalter and Beldegreen, said by 2025, it is estimated that there could be 25 students receiving Showalter-Beldegreen scholarships. This fall, three students will receive support.
“The impact will be huge — the doors it will open, the opportunities it will provide, the lives it will change and the connections it will make,” said Pulley, who plans to retire on June 30. “The students who receive this sort of support will be mindful of that. They’ll carry it into their career, they will remember and they will give back.”
If they do, they will be following Showalter’s example. She has been a generous donor over the decades since she graduated from William & Mary with a bachelor of science in psychology in 1955.
Showalter saw education as crucial for her own career advancement and that of others. After graduating from William & Mary, she took a job as a licensed social worker in Virginia for several years. She then moved to California, where she became personnel manager and later director of personnel at the Reuben H. Donnelly publishing company.
After earning a master’s degree in psychology at Columbia University in New York City, Showalter joined Columbia Broadcasting System — now CBS — in 1966. At that time, the network had been in existence for about four decades and popular prime time programs included “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Red Skelton Hour.”
Nancy Widmann, one of the authors of the book “I Didn’t See It Coming – The Only Book You’ll Ever Need to Avoid Being Blindsided in Business,” worked with Showalter at CBS and the two became friends. In the book, Widmann writes that “Joan became the respected and admired head of HR and was known affectionately as the ‘godmother’ of CBS.”
Showalter’s legacy included helping employees prepare for retirement through development of the network’s Pre-Retirement Education Program. In a 1981 interview with The New York Times, she said there was a need to address questions about inflation, tax laws, pensions and benefits as employees made decisions on when to retire. “I think 10 years from now it will be the rare major corporation that doesn’t have something like this,” she told the newspaper. “It’s a responsible step for industry.”
She was a mentor for other women at CBS, among them Jessica Savitch, whom she hired in an entry-level role, helping her gain an audition for a broadcast news job in a smaller city, according to the book “Hard News: Women in Journalism.” Savitch later became a weekend news anchor for NBC.
Showalter was also a mentor and lifelong friend to Beldegreen, who started working at CBS as a secretary in 1971. A native New Yorker, Beldegreen graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she majored in French, and then attended secretarial school in New York City. When Beldegreen met Showalter and expressed an interest in working in human resources, Showalter offered her a position on the condition that she obtain a master’s degree.
“Karen was terrified because she hadn’t been in school for years,” said DeBruin, daughter of Joan DeBruin, Beldegreen’s college sorority sister, and Beldegreen’s goddaughter. “She was trepidatious, but she did it. To me, Karen was this great, mythic, larger-than-life figure because she lived in New York City and worked for TV.”
Beldegreen completed her MBA at New York University in 1983 and advanced to the role of vice president in human resources at CBS. She retired in 1999, three years after Showalter, who had moved to her hometown of Roanoke to care for her mother. Beldegreen joined her friend in Southwest Virginia and the two women lived next door to each other at Smith Mountain Lake beginning in 2003.
In retirement, the former career women remained active with volunteer work, and they enjoyed dining out and traveling with friends.
They took a total of 34 Alumni Journeys through William & Mary, beginning with a 1999 safari in Kenya. On that trip, they formed a friendship with Tom Zeni M.B.A. ’75 and Lauris Zeni ’72, Betsy Calvo Anderson ’70 and the late Alvin Anderson ’70. The group went on several other W&M alumni trips together, as well as getaways they planned on their own — often to Staunton, where they’d stay in a bed-and-breakfast, attend Shakespeare performances and visit historic sites.
“We did something at least once a year,” Tom Zeni said. “Every time we’d get together, the first night at dinner, Joan would try to plan the next trip.”
Showalter served on the W&M Business School Foundation board from 1980-1990 and remained engaged as an emeritus member. She also served on William & Mary Foundation from 1984-1990. She received the Alumni Medallion — the most prestigious award given by the W&M Alumni Association — in 1985 and the Douglas N. Morton ’62 Alumni Service Award in 2002.
A savvy investor, she started a Women’s Investing Network at Smith Mountain Lake. Even during the last year of her life, when she was in a long-term care facility after being seriously injured in a fall, she would meet regularly with a stockbroker.
“She’d list off five or six companies and he’d tell her what he knew about them,” DeBruin said. “She was still making trades up until six weeks before she passed. If I asked how much Microsoft she owned, she could tell me to the share.”
Like Showalter, Tom Zeni has been involved in the business school. As an executive partner, he works with an undergraduate class on investing.
“When we got together, she and I would talk about the stock market,” he said. “In 1999 during the dot-com bubble, we were sitting there in Africa trying to find a USA Today to see what the stock market did the day before.”
“Joan was a great storyteller,” Lauris Zeni added. “She never met a stranger. She was kind, always interested in other people’s ideas and what they had to say. She was remarkable.”
After Showalter introduced Beldegreen to William & Mary through the alumni trips, Beldegreen participated in the Roanoke alumni chapter’s Habitat for Humanity projects and served as its website administrator. In 2006, the W&M Alumni Association board recognized her as an honorary alumna.
A large portion of Beldegreen’s estate was left to Showalter and combined with her estate to form the $14.4 million bequest. Their decision to use their estates to create scholarships stemmed from a desire to help others succeed as they had done, DeBruin said.
“They knew that they could make an impact with the amount of money they had available to them,” she said. “It was an opportunity to help generations of people get started in their careers.”
One student already benefiting from their generosity is Katelyn Housler M.B.A. ’23, a current recipient of the Lura Dixon Showalter fellowship. This summer, Housler is working with ThredUp — the largest online retailer for secondhand clothes — as a product management intern. She hopes to pursue a career in marketing for a company that promotes sustainable initiatives.
Housler met recently with Kate DeBruin and her mother, Joan, and learned a bit more about Joan Showalter.
“It was amazing to hear about her legacy as one of the first heads of HR at CBS and how hard she worked in her lifetime,” Housler said. “Just to be able to look up to someone like that inspires you to pave your own path and try to work as hard as you can, so you can leave a similar legacy.”