Betsy and Stan Phelps P'86

Portrait in Philanthropy: Betsy and Stan Phelps P’86

Settled at a corner table of a favorite restaurant near their home in Greenwich, CT, Betsy and Stan Phelps P’86 welcome Margaret Drugovich and her partner, Beth Steele, for dinner. With the President’s encouragement, the conversation turns to stories of their life together – as husband and wife for 56 years, parents, and grandparents – and their lives as individuals of influence – philanthropists and volunteers, each with his or her own carefully chosen priorities.

Elizabeth Richmond Phelps is a community leader whose volunteerism is centered on the education and development of young people. The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History is a favorite of the couple and their grandchildren; both Betsy and Stan serve on the Peabody Museum Leadership Council and the life-sized dinosaur Torosaurus latus that marks the museum’s entrance was a family project in its creation and funding. An alumna of The Madeira School and Smith College, Betsy is a past trustee of Madeira, the Brunswick School, and Hartwick College.

Perhaps because their son George now has three sons of his own, Betsy continues to serve on the Board of the Boy Scouts of America, Greenwich Council. Her interests extend to work as a member and past president of the Advisory Board of the Greenwich Arts Council and as a member and past president of Green Fingers Garden Club, for which she has co-chaired two major events. (“You must have good, strong people to work with,” she shares.)

Betsy’s life is guided by “making a difference in my community and my family,” she says. “I believe everyone should volunteer.”

Hartwick is high on her list, and the College community has benefited from her insights and dedication time and again. Betsy is the parent of alumna and former trustee Catherine Phelps McNamara ’86, a six-year member of the Hartwick Board, a proponent of Hartwick’s liberal arts in practice, and a gracious hostess of College events such as last spring’s president’s reception at the Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Greenwich, CT.

Generosity is one of the many ties that bind Betsy and Stan Phelps. Betsy says she expresses her philanthropy through volunteerism, while her husband expresses his through charitable contributions.

Stanford Phelps is an entrepreneur of remarkable achievement. Following a 50-year career in commercial and investment banking, his business interests now range from oil refining to agribusiness to alligator, blueberry, and cattle farming in Florida. “We like to do hard assets and we’ve had luck,” he says. “We don’t do high tech; I’m scared to death of obsolescence.”

Actually, it’s hard to imagine that Stan Phelps is afraid of much.

From a young age he has been on the front lines, developing an understanding of the importance of strategy and competitive advantage. He was trained as an Army forward observer between the Korean and Vietnam Wars. “You needed speed and accuracy to do that job,” he recalls. “Observation could mean survival.”

Stan continues to prefer life on the leading edge. “I’m in charge of mistakes,” says the Chairman of S.N. Phelps & Co., Clear Springs Land Company, and Commonwealth Oil Refining Company, Inc. “We all make mistakes, but if you don’t know you’ve made them, you can’t fix them. I tell my people ‘I want you to learn something every day. If you don’t, you’re a failure.'”

Stan has perspective that can only come from experience. “Life should be divided into three parts,” he outlines. “First, when and where you learn; second, when you’re lucky enough to make money; and third, when and how you give it away. You should have more fun giving money away than you had making it. Besides,” he adds with a wry smile, “There’s no point in having an armored truck follow your hearse.”

This shrewd businessman’s philanthropic priorities are personal: his Christian faith, his education (Phillips Exeter Academy, Yale University, and Harvard Business School), and his daughter’s education (Hartwick College). Buildings, programs, and endowments at nonprofit organizations across the country bear the names of benefactors Elizabeth and Stanford Phelps. At Hartwick, their most recent generous gift helped renovate the College’s oldest building – Bresee Hall; a plaque recognizes Stan Phelps’ gift in honor of his wife and their daughter, Kate, both former Hartwick trustees.

“Hartwick is a very good liberal arts college that’s gotten better and better with Margaret’s leadership,” Betsy says, her husband nodding in agreement. “It’s an exciting time, an exciting place.”

“It’s simple,” Stan explains. “Hartwick helped to educate Kate well, and so we owe them.” Always the strategist, he adds, “The College’s liberal arts core gives all graduates a huge plus. Hartwick people are balanced.”


This portrait appeared in The Wick magazine, Fall 2012.