The Texas ancestral trail leading to Betty Ruth Williams Wakefield Haley’s support of the Tom Lea Institute and the border community is a well-trod one, going back to the five Cowden brothers who, in the 1850s, founded ranches in the Permian Basin. Her great-great uncle, Rufus Burleson, baptized Sam Houston. One of her grandfathers, Dr. Burleson Staten, a pioneer El Paso physician, made house calls by horse and buggy; the other, the Rev. Joseph Franklin Williams, served El Paso’s First Baptist Church as its fifth minister. (Lyndon Baines Johnson’s great uncle, George Baines, was the first.)
The connections widened to include the Tom Lea family. Tom Lea’s mother, Zola Utt, served as First Baptist’s pianist, while Tom’s father, Mayor Tom Lea, didn’t attend much, wryly claiming the steeple might fall on him. Zola took her sons to church every Sunday and on Wednesday evenings. When the handsome Rev. Williams died in 1920, Zola Lea thought so highly of him that she took her boys to the funeral home, deeply impressing the thirteen-year-old Tom. He later said, that when he saw Rev. Williams lying there, he “thought God must look like that.”
Betty Ruth’s mother, Lillie Adair Staten, attended El Paso High School with Tom. When Lillie married John D. Williams, the couple remained friends with Tom and Sarah Lea.
Betty Ruth, who survived two husbands, founded the Wakefield Family Foundation after her first husband C.W. “Wake” Wakefield died. The Foundation helps support many El Paso not-for-profit organizations. It presented the El Paso Museum of Art with the El Paso High School yearbook in which her mother and Tom Lea appear, and where young Tom honed his drawing skills as its illustrator.
“Caring about the community is a family tradition,” says Betty Ruth.