Betty Lee Ongley

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Betty Lee Clara Ongley
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Born (1926-01-25) January 25, 1926 (age 98)
Algonac, Michigan
CitizenshipUnited States Of America
Alma materWestern Michigan University

Betty Lee Clara Ongley (Born January 25, 1926) is an activist, community leader, and the first female mayor of Portage, Michigan, a prominent southwestern Michigan city with the largest tax base in Kalamazoo County, Michigan [1]. Portage is the headquarters or a major site for numerous national and international businesses, including Stryker Corporation, Mann & Hummel, and North American Color, Inc., as well as home to the largest pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in the world at over four million square feet(Pfizer) [2].

Ongley is best known as an extraordinary community servant who founded and contributed to a myriad of organizations to make life better for those in Kalamazoo County. This is in addition to her high regard as an accomplished professional in the school guidance field, and as a revered mentor to many women who ultimately went on to serve the community in non-profits and in elected office.


Originally from Algonac, Michigan, Betty Ongley attended Algonac High School where she was the first female sousaphone player in the school band and first woman in the town's marching band, and graduated in 1943.[3] Ongley attended Western Michigan University where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Social Science in 1947 and a Masters Degree in Social Science in 1958. She also received a designation as an Education Specialist, Counseling and Personnel Study in 1974, a Graduate Certificate in Holistic Health in 1984, and a Graduate Certificate in Gerontology in 1991.


Ongley began her career as a Caseworker for the Michigan Department of Social Services from 1948-1950. She then worked as a teacher, then the Guidance Director and Counselor for the Portage Public School System from 1956-1986. As a guidance professional, Ongley was elected to serve as the president of the Michigan School Counselors Association and the Michigan Guidance and Development Association. She organized the first community Career Conference for Girls in Science and Math in 1982. She received Distinguished Service Awards from both the Michigan Association of College Educators and Supervisors (1981) and the Michigan School Counselors Association (1983). The Michigan Association of Women Deans, Administrators and Counselors recognized Ongley in 1990, granting her their Award for Outstanding Contributions to Women and Education. In 1997 the Kalamazoo Area Retired School Personnel issued her their very first "Recognition for Outstanding Contributions to the Community" award. She also received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Western Michigan University's Department of Counselor Education (1987) and the first Holistic Healthcare Outstanding Alumni Award (2002), and the WMU College of Education "Apple" Award in 2011[4]. Ongley had retired from her professional life in school guidance and counseling career in 1986 but continued an active and robust involvement in the community, leading to the numerous awards from educational institutions.

Elected Office

Ongley occupied key leadership roles during the early years of the formation of the City of Portage in 1963.[5]In 1968, a few friends asked Ongley to run for City Council after raising $52 to support her campaign. After winning and serving one term on City Council, Ongley decided to run for mayor, and served in that role for three terms until 1979.[6] She was elected to additional term as Councilmember, in total serving 20 years on the City Council from 1968-1984 and again from 2001-2005. She was then elected to two terms as a Commissioner of Kalamazoo County, Michigan (1987-1990). Her active engagement did not end with her terms, however, as she continue to serve on various advisory boards such as Portage Parks & Recreation Board, Health Connect, Military Academy Advisory Committee, Portage 2000 and Portage 2025, Girl Scouts of America, Senior Services, Visiting Nurse Association Hospice Advisory Committee, and Area Agency on Aging [7].

Local citizens also elected Ongley as a Trustee of the Portage District Library (previously Portage Public Library) in 2007 and again in 2012, where she served two terms as Chair of its Board of Trustees. She was a leader in the original millage campaign to build the library building, as well as reorganizing as a District Library.[8]

Community Engagement

Ongley has also served on numerous councils and agencies dedicated to services for seniors, guardianship, assisting the homeless, and healthcare. Ongley has been an active Red Cross volunteer since 1950, serving on disaster teams for Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew and service on the Board of Directors. She has volunteered with the Red Cross for over 70 years. She served on the board of the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy from 2002-2008, the latter three years as President of the Board. [9]

In 1990, Ongley established the Kalamazoo Guardianship Consortium, connecting 35 local agencies, including hospitals, courts and nonprofits to address guardianship and conservatorship matters. She served as Chair of the board for five years and was a member of the Board from 1990-1997.

Ongley was a founding member and board officer of the Michigan Association for Adult Development and Aging from 1992-1994 and served on the State of Michigan Advisory Council on Aging from 1992 to 1996.She also served as president of the Regional Council of the Alzheimer's Association of Southwest Michigan, and as president of Area Agency on Aging from 1989-1990. Her many boards of directors participation include Senior Services, Inc. of Kalamazoo County, the Kalamazoo Healthy Futures Coordinating Council, the Kalamazoo Dementia Consortium, and chair of the Visiting Nurse Association Hospice Advisory Committee.

Ongley founded the Kalamazoo Older Women's League (OWL) and also served on its Board, and also as president of the Michigan, Midwest Region, and National Boards of OWL. She was a co-founder of the Portage League of Women Voters. Ongley helped found the local chapter of the National Organization for Women which awarded her the NOW Outstanding Woman of the Year Award for the Kalamazoo area in 1983. ref>Jones, Al (2016-06-15). "Betty Lee Ongley awarded Rotary Club of Kalamazoo's Red Rose Citation". Retrieved 2019-03-03.</ref> Ongley has been a longtime member of the Ladies Library Association.[10] The Ladies Library Association undertook an extensive renovation with the help of Betty Ongley's guidance and leadership.She served as its president from 2008-2010 and has been a member since 1999 and is still on the Board as of 2020.

The Kalamazoo Russian Cultural Association and its Kalamazoo-Pushkin partnership was co-founded by Ongley, and she served as a member of many delegations to Pushkin. [11]

Ongley served on the Board of Directors of the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy from 2002-2008 and as its president from 2005-2008.

In 2016, the Portage City Council honored Ongley on her 90th birthday.[12]

Personal Life

Betty Lee Sweeney married John ("Jack") Ongley (d.2002) in 1946. They had five children:Margaret, John, David, Jill and Martha, all of whom have at least Master's degrees which is a testament to Betty's devotion to education.

Other Awards and Honors

In 1981 the Michigan House of Representatives and the Michigan State Senate passed House Concurrent Resolution No. 79, Tribute to Berry Lee Ongley, commemorating her outstanding service as Chairperson of the Kalamazoo Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council.

In 1985, Ongley was awarded the YWCA of Kalamazoo's first Lifetime Woman of Achievement Award.[13]

In 2009 Ongley was among eight business people, community leaders and organizations recognized at the Kalamazoo Institute of the Arts.[14]

In 2016, Ongley was awarded the Rotary Club of Kalamazoo's Red Rose Citation.[15]

In 2009 Ongley was awarded the ATHENA International Award, selected by theKalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce with a Special Tribute issued by the State of Michigan and Governor Jennifer Granholm.[16]

In 2017, undeveloped land was donated to the City of Portage by Claudette Reid and Richard Kraas to establish a preserve in Ongley's honor.[17]


  3. Vander Weyden, Jane (November 1996). "Energy in Motion: Kalamazoo is the Recipient of Betty Ongley's Vigor". Encore Magazine: 16–20, 54.
  4. "Golden Apple Award Recipients | College of Education and Human Development | Western Michigan University". Retrieved 2019-03-03.
  5. Mann, Sehvilla. "Why Aren't Portage and Kalamazoo One City?". Retrieved 2019-03-03.
  6. Waskiewicz, Carol (December 2009). "Newsletter" (PDF). Kalamazoo Area Retired School Personnel. Retrieved 3 March 2019.
  7. Betty Lee Ongley: A Lifetime of Service February 9, 2016, Portage City Hall program
  8. Proclamation for Betty Lee Ongley, Portage District Library, January 25, 2016, signed by Alisha Siebers, Chair and Christy Klien, Director.
  9. Accolade (April 19, 2008)"Betty Lee Ongley's life of public service" pg A10, Kalamazoo Gazette
  10. Roe, Rebecca (2011-11-03). "Ladies Library Association will commemorate 160th anniversary with weeklong celebration next spring". Retrieved 2019-03-04.
  11. 2014 OSA 2014 Senior Citizen of the Year Award Nomination of Betty Lee Ongley
  12. honors Betty Lee Ongley for her 90th birthday, decades of community service|last=Haroldson|first=Tom|date=2016-01-13||language=en-US|access-date=2019-03-03}}</
  13. Jones, Al (2016-06-15). "Betty Lee Ongley awarded Rotary Club of Kalamazoo's Red Rose Citation". Retrieved 2019-03-03.
  14. Jones, Al (2009-03-21). "Five people, three firms receive 2009 Community Awards from the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce". Retrieved 2019-03-03.
  15. Jones, Al (2016-06-15). "Betty Lee Ongley awarded Rotary Club of Kalamazoo's Red Rose Citation". Retrieved 2019-03-03.
  17. Haroldson, Tom (2017-12-20). "Land donated to Portage for preserve named after Betty Lee Ongley". Retrieved 2019-03-03.

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