Up Close and Personal: OSU's Connection to ‘Betty Crocker’

By George P. Edmonston Jr. and Chuck Boice

One of the significant contributions OSU has made to the history of higher education in the United States is that of founding the first College of Home Economics in the west in 1889. The credit for this goes to legendary faculty member Margaret Comstock Snell (1844-1923). And yet, of the thousands of outstanding graduates produced in the 20th century by Snell’s creation, few have accomplished more than Mercedes Bates, a graduate of the class of 1936.

Bates and her OSU food and nutrition degree went very far in a world of very big business. She retired in 1983 after nearly 20 years as a corporate vice president for General Mills International and director of the Betty Crocker Food and Nutrition Center.

As such, she was the first woman corporate officer in General Mills’ history.

Throughout her long career, Bates remained active in both business and academics. Business Week magazine named her one of the 100 Top Corporate Women in American Business for the decade of the 1970s. The recognition was justly deserved. By 1970, she had already served as president of the California Home Economics Association. Immediately after, she was selected as president of the 50,000-member American Home Economics Association, her profession’s highest honor. When her term was up, she was appointed president of the AHEA Foundation.

Donating her time and talents as a consultant for several universities, including her alma mater, she was appointed by President Richard Nixon to the White House Fellows Commission and by President Gerald Ford to an economic summit conference. She also testified before the Senate on nutrition and other related issues.

Other notable achievements included an appointment as chair of the board of directors of the Sister Kenny Institute and time spent on the board of Lifespan, Inc., as well as on the board of Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Health Affiliates. She also found time to further the work and interests of 4-H and the Girl Scouts.

Clearly, her greatest contribution to higher education came in February 1989, when she returned home to Oregon State to present her alma mater with a gift worth $3 million to help construct the Mercedes A. Bates Family Study Center, the first of its kind in the United States. At that time, it was the largest one-time donation ever made to OSU.

It is, however, as "Betty Crocker" that most OSU alumni know Bates, in spite of the fact that she was not and was never (in real life) the popular advertising icon for which she is most remembered. Actually, "Betty Crocker" came into being in 1921 and for many years was only a name and a voice.

The name was a nice one with which to sign letters to housewives who sent letters to General Mills asking for recipes. It came courtesy of retired company director William Crocker.

In short order, the signature became a voice featured on the very popular Betty Crocker radio show. By 1936, the year Bates graduated from OSAC, Betty had acquired a "face," depicted in a painting with no one model involved. This early Betty Crocker, it would later be said, had a look of confidence but was somewhat forbidding.

The next portrait of the now famous General Mills kitchen expert came in 1955. The newly revamped Betty now showed a trace of a smile. Bates became "Betty’s Boss" in 1964 with her appointment as director of the Betty Crocker Food and Nutrition Center in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley. Over the next several years, the OSU alumna would direct artists through four more Betty Crocker face-lifts, always to keep up with changing styles of dress and hair.

"I see her as a career woman," Bates said of the sixth version in 1980, "a professional, first and last."

Crocker was no small responsibility for Bates. In a December 1980 article in People magazine, writer Rosemary Rawson noted that Betty Crocker of General Mills had become "one of the most successful corporate trademarks of all time. Her name is on more than 130 General Mills products, sales of which amount to over $500 million a year." In cookbooks alone, she added, the company had sold over 50 million copies since 1950, some of which were best sellers.

"Mercedes Bates," Rawson concluded, "is the woman behind Betty Crocker."

As proud as Bates was of her work with marketing the products of her employer, she took greatest pleasure in the changes she made in the operation of the Betty Crocker Kitchens themselves. For the first time, the general public was allowed inside. Using tours and presentations, she wanted people to understand the importance of organizing a kitchen for efficiency, preparing menus for good nutrition, and handling food properly and safely, always following the family-oriented approach she had learned at Oregon State and from Margaret Snell’s enduring legacy.

Though proud of what she did to help make Betty Crocker a household name, Bates also remarked, "Today it would be impossible to create Betty. Consumers are too sophisticated."

Her work and career were always high profile among OSU students, faculty and administrators, and she was honored by the university on numerous occasions. In 1969, she was among a select few to receive a special Alumni Centennial Award at the Centennial commencement. In 1973, OSU honored her with its highest award, the Distinguished Service Award. After her retirement from General Mills in 1983, she was selected in 1985 as the first College Outstanding Alumna by the OSU Home Economics Association.

Bates was the only daughter of a civil engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad and attended schools in Portland. When he was transferred to Omaha, Neb., she chose to remain and become a student at OSU. She was inspired by the college’s pioneering home economist Margaret Snell and the strong family-oriented mission Snell envisioned for it. While a college student, Bates was known as a "quiet person" who put schoolwork above all else. Few of her classmates dreamed that such a quiet person would someday be a vice president of one of America’s largest corporations and pave the way for future generations of women to aspire to corporate management positions. Though not a talker, she was anything but timid. She always remained focused on her goals and found time for carefully chosen outside activities, becoming a member of Omicron Nu...a national honorary for home economics undergraduates...and in her senior year house president of her sorority, Delta Zeta.

She passed away in Bloomington, Minn., August 16, 1997, at age 81. On learning of her passing, tributes to her life poured in from all across the United States. None, however, summed up this amazing Beaver like the remarks given by Paul Allison, then director of development for the College of Home Economics and a personal friend of Bates for 15 years.

"She was a person with a strong business personality. At the same time, she was a warm and caring human being very interested in the welfare of others, especially children and their education. Above all, she was a professional who had a lifelong mission in advancing the principles of home economics in everyday life."