Bettina Tuttle Potter ’78 CE
Supporting the next generation and beyond
From the time she was a child growing up in northern Minnesota, Bettina Tuttle Potter ’78 CE has been an independent thinker who eagerly follows her interests wherever they may take her. She studied in Belgium as a high school foreign exchange student, attended a pre-collegiate engineering program in North Dakota, and in 1973 traveled with her younger sister to Worcester to check out this great polytechnic school she’d heard about from her high school guidance counselor.
Less than 24 hours into that visit, she knew it was the place for her. She turned down a track-and-field scholarship at another school to major in chemical engineering at WPI. If not for financial aid, Potter says she wouldn’t have been free to choose where she went to college.
That’s one reason she feels strongly about removing barriers to opportunities. She recently bequeathed the largest gift yet to WPI by any alumna, creating endowments for Men’s and Women’s Crew, the Great Minds/CoMPASS Scholars program, Pre-Collegiate Outreach, and the STEM Education Center.
“I feel it’s my responsibility to provide in whatever small way, shape, or form that I can, something for the next generations,” she says. “If I could have a conversation with my younger self, I would say, ‘give back more often, give back earlier in your life, because personal fulfillment is tremendous.’”
Potter’s early experiences drive her volunteer and philanthropic efforts. It was the pre-collegiate program that allowed her to expand her vision of herself as an engineer and introduced her to the adults who would steer her in the right direction. Three of the four WPI programs her gift supports reach students at that same pivotal moment when they’re beginning to think seriously about their futures.
Crew? … that’s a different story.
Back in 1973 during that first campus visit, then-Dean of Students Bernie Brown enlisted two students, Anne Madara ’76 and Terry Cirone ’76, to show Potter around WPI. Both were enthusiastic about crew, then a club sport. Potter returned to Minnesota, studied up on crew, and joined the women’s team in her freshman year at WPI. Her friend Erik Hedberg ’78 convinced her to become coxswain for Men’s Crew.
Potter also played cornet in WPI’s marching band and was the manager for both the swim and track teams, and a Zeta Psi sister. Those activities and others at WPI balanced out the hard work of studying and led to friendships that endure today. Crew, in particular, was life-changing, she remembers.
“That’s where I first began to learn leadership skills,” she says. At the stern, she came to trust the rowers’ strength and focus on “working between their ears,” as coach Dave “Floyd” Ploss ’70 taught her. When they hit their rhythm, it was magical, she remembers.
“There’s nothing in the world that compares to getting in the boat and having those oars click on time and sailing through the water. It’s an amazing, amazing feeling,” she says. “And you know it when it’s right.”
Potter brought those leadership skills with her into the working world, which took her from General Electric to Exxon, where she met her husband, Jeff, and on to positions at other manufacturers. Along the way, she has made it a priority to mentor young women and men. She also volunteers for nonprofits that focus on community and food insecurity.
In each of her endeavors, she calls upon the knowledge she gained at WPI, both in the classroom and on the water. Whether it’s solving an intricacy of distribution, helping end a child’s hunger pangs, or connecting with a mentee, she aims for that moment when the oars plunge neatly into the water and propel her team forward.
Last year, Bettina and Jeff traveled back to Worcester for the dedication of a crew boat in her honor.
“My husband came along and I think he got an eyeful. He said, ‘I was just in awe. I didn’t think you were a big deal,’” she remembers. “And I’m really not. I just think it’s really important that we take care of our kids. Our students need us as alumni. We have a responsibility to help in whatever way we can.”