Front page article in News & Observer on July 28, 2012:

(RALEIGH) When Betty Ann Knudsen ran for North Carolina secretary of state in 1984, she faced a particularly hostile reaction from a male voter.

He waved a campaign brochure in the face of Knudsen.

“He said, ‘Is this you? I ain’t never voted for a woman, and I ain’t going to,’ ” recalled Knudsen’s friend, Vivian Bowman-Edwards. “She said, ‘All right, I’ll take my pamphlet and give it to someone who will appreciate it.”

Although she ultimately did not win that race, Knudsen never lost that sense of perseverance and passion for helping others, her friends and family said.

Knudsen died Friday at age 85 after battling Parkinson’s disease and congestive heart failure.

“Knudsen was a political and social trailblazer and remains a role model for women following her into public office,” Raleigh Mayor Nancy MacFarlane said.

From her beginning political experience as president of a local Parent Teacher Association in the late 1960s to her election as the first woman to chair the Wake County Board of Commissioners in 1978, Knudsen had a lasting impact on the Triangle community.

• She spearheaded the merger of the Raleigh City Schools and the Wake County Schools.

• Her leadership helped bring about a unified library system, greenways and a countywide 911 response system.

• She pushed Raleigh’s application for the All-American City Award, which it won in 1976.

Beyond her tenure as a county commissioner, Knudsen served on numerous local boards and women’s groups, including the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Forum of North Carolina. She lobbied legislators for women’s causes and continued to volunteer later in life, even when she stopped driving, said her son, Karl Knudsen.

Documentary about life

Bowman-Edwards, a filmmaker, produced “Show Up, Speak Out: The Public Life of Betty Ann Knudsen,” a 2009 documentary that chronicled Knudsen’s life in politics and the many friendships she developed over the years.

“She had a guiding principle about what was right,” Bowman-Edwards said. “I don’t think we’ll ever know how many people were inspired by her.”

Knudsen’s role in the community brought numerous accolades, including being inducted in the inaugural group of the Raleigh Hall of Fame in 2005.

A Democrat “to her bones” who served as secretary of the state Democratic Party, Knudsen built an impressive political organization that brought together people from Wake County and other parts of the state, said Paula Wolf, a former state lobbyist.

“No woman ran for elected office in Wake County without getting her blessing,” Wolf said. “She was like a second mother to me.”

Yvonne Brannon, another former Wake commissioner, echoed that sentiment, recalling Knudsen as a “strategic thinker” whom others sought out.

“Anybody in Wake County who wanted to talk about education wanted to talk to Betty Ann,” Brannon said. “Anybody in Wake County who wanted to talk about Falls Lake wanted to talk to Betty Ann.”

Brannon said that she visited Knudsen just last week and was peppered with questions and comments about local issues.

“At the end of her life, she was as passionate about the issues – and the solutions – as she was the first time I met her years ago,” Brannon said.


A room in the Knudsen family’s North Hills home became known as the “War Room,” Karl Knudsen remembered. In a time before computers, the room had a detailed, precinct-by-precinct map of the county and meticulous index cards that kept track of local races. Knudsen enlisted her whole family, Karl Knudsen said, noting that he drove to every polling place in Wake County to distribute campaign signs.

Of the many women Knudsen encouraged to run for local office, perhaps the most well-known was Isabella Cannon, the 72-year-old “little old lady in tennis shoes” who became the first female mayor of a U.S. capital city after defeating the incumbent Raleigh mayor in 1977.

Knudsen’s dedication to public service was matched by her devotion to her family, Karl Knudsen said. She was a loving wife, mother to her two sons and daughter, and grandmother to her four grandchildren.

Knudsen pursued numerous activities, including singing, gardening and traveling.

From 1989 to 1996, Knudsen and her husband, Peter, lived on 600 acres in Costa Rica, where they amassed a large butterfly collection. She loved collecting butterflies, earning her the nickname “Butterfly Lady.”

Brannon said Knudsen also influenced her many friends by always making sure they knew how special they were to her. Every conversation ended with Knudsen saying, “I love you.”

“You could never hang up the phone without hearing her say that,” Brannon recalled.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s