124 - Bringing Us Back to Cardinal & Straw

Introduction by Whitney Heckathorne Plumpton, Chief Marketing Officer for Chi Omega Fraternity

Chi Omega began sharing our 125 stories on October 22, 2018.

That was 530 days ago…which means I have been nervous for exactly 530 days about writing and sharing this penultimate story featuring an incredible Sister – anxious about how one story could possibly be all-encompassing of her impact – and biting my nails about how to do it justice.

Sure, this Sister is a mentor of mine…a friend…and a steady ally for the Fraternity and all of the good our Sisters put into the world.

But she’s also a legend. As refined, elegant, and timeless as her signature platinum coif, current S.H. Shelley Potter is the living embodiment of our Symphony’s charge, keeping our Fraternity’s welfare “ever at heart.”

I don’t say this because she’s our S.H. or because she’s my boss’s boss.

I say it because I’ve witnessed it.

I’ll never forget my first real interaction with Shelley.

It was 2011, and I was still new-ish to my role as the Director of Communications at the Executive Headquarters. I was partnering with then-Governing Council member Kate Scattergood on a badly-needed website redesign for chiomega.com. I had worked tirelessly to bring our formerly static site past the grainy web standards of the aughts to one that was eye-catching, robust, and easy-to-use.

Sister Scattergood and I were proud of our work. Everyone on the Governing Council and the Executive Headquarters staff agreed – the site was beautiful and functional (though I know today we would certainly balk). Before going live, Kate insisted she send the design over to Shelley for her opinion.

“She’s been a longtime mentor to me – and she’s a designer.”

At the time, Shelley was serving as the President of the Chi Omega Foundation, following a decade-long stretch of volunteering on the Governing Council. I was unclear what kind of designer Shelley was (answer: landscape architect) but I was fairly certain it wasn’t a web designer.

Confident Shelley would see my work as sophisticated and pristine, I sent it over.

She immediately emailed back.

“The straw background…it has a green tint.”

I rolled my eyes back as far as they could go. No it didn’t, I explained. You see, we had used our sanctioned RHB “straw” for the background, and even with the gradient that was added to give it some texture, it was still our approved color.

“Maybe it’s my Mac… but I see a tinge of green,” she said.

I called Kate immediately.

“Shelley thinks the website is GREEN. I promise it is our approved straw. I gave all of the RHB color codes to our designer. Maybe it’s her computer…her lighting…her eyes…” I rambled on.

Kate mulled.

“Hmm…well, I guess now that she mentions it, maybe it does have the slightest green cast. Let’s ask the rest of the Governing Council what they think.”

I hung up, huffed, and barged into my boss’s office.

“The website was ready to go and SHELLEYYYY thinks the background is GREEN. Green! It’s straw! It’s supposed to launch tomorrow. IT. IS STRAW.”

Our Executive Director looked at me. Then squinted at the website mock-up.

“Umm…maybe it’s the light? Don’t be mad. Now I see green, too.”

This went on for the next couple of hours.

S.H. Letitia Fulkerson suddenly saw green.

The S.T.B. saw green.

The S.K.A., S.N.V., Eleusis editor, my mom, my boyfriend, my pledge Sister.

Green, green, green, green, green, green.

The moral of this story?

It was green. The website designer had made a slight error to the color formula. And I was unable – more likely, unwilling – to see it, in my rush to meet my deadline.

Shelley was right. And she wasn’t going to let Chi Omega settle for anything less than cardinal and straw – even if it meant we were behind my arbitrary schedule.

That was nine years ago and now, like Kate Scattergood and hundreds more, I couldn’t value Shelley’s opinion more.

While Shelley certainly has an eye for design particularly for simplicity and modernity – what’s most important is she has a heart that is rooted in our Symphony. Every second I’ve been able to work hand in hand with her over her past six years has been a teachable moment for me – from reimagining our brand, to observing leadership lessons, to watching her continually raise Chi Omega’s bar of excellence – her friendship and Sisterhood has been the most meaningful mentorship of my career.

I got a surprise note in the mail the other day from Shelley (she just knows when Sisters need a boost of encouragement). While the recent pandemic has been hard on everyone in their own way, for me, it’s been having two preschool-age legacies swarming at my feet while I work from home, trying to prepare for Chi Omega’s 125th. As usual, her card, her message, and her sentiment hit the spot and were the perfect reminder that, while we should always be seeking more, she’s also proud of our progress.

A legend. A bar-raiser. And Chi Omega’s biggest cheerleader.

A Sister whose legacy as S.H. will be making Chi O cardinal and straw again.

And while I mean that literally – forcing me to redo a green website – I also mean it metaphorically. She has brought our Fraternity back to its roots…its intention of friendship…its history and traditions.

Getting to interview Shelley has been the ultimate honor.

And this tribute is my personal thank you note to you, Sister S.H.

An Interview with S.H. Shelley Potter

In 2019, Shelley was recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus by Texas
A&M, the highest award one can receive from the University. The video, above, gives a synopsis of her post college achievements, including her contributions to her school, community, and Chi Omega.

Let’s start at the beginning. What made you decide to go to Texas A&M? Wasn’t it mostly men at the time?

I think what really made me decide to go to A&M was that my father was an Aggie. Even as a small child I could tell how much it meant to him – he never took off his Aggie ring his entire life! More importantly, he lived the core values that A&M represents.

Shelley’s father with her mother at their Texas A&M Ring Dance
A teenage Shelley (top left) with her family, including her Aggie dad. 

Further, I loved the traditions and that it was a sports-minded school, When I started as a freshman, there were 3,000 women and 15,000 men. In fact, women had only been allowed to live on campus for two years. I lived on campus in The Commons – Krueger Hall.

When I enrolled, I was interested in pre-med and wanted to go somewhere with a strong academic foundation. However, like many students, I discovered that perhaps medical school wasn’t where my heart was, but I did know one thing – I absolutely LOVED my biology and botany classes. I learned my calling was more the creative arts, specifically landscape architecture.

The changing of my major in sophomore year was fortuitous, because I had to go back and take freshman architecture classes.

Like many campuses, A&M had a building that needed to be torn down. Knowing it would be demolished soon, the administration said architecture students could work on their projects there. And there, in that building on my first day as a landscape architecture major, was a handsome freshman from Shreveport, LA, Jeff Potter.

I knew the day I met him that he was “the one.” In fact, I went back after class and told my roommate there was just….something about him.

Shelley and Jeff at their Aggie Ring Dance

About 30 days later we had our first date and then shortly after that I was asked to pledge Chi Omega – so my relationship with Jeff and Chi Omega have always been intertwined.  

One of your fun facts is that you were a charter member of the Xi Kappa Chapter of Chi Omega and FIFTH to sign the roll book. Did you always think you would join a sorority in college?

The fall of my sophomore year around The Commons in my dorm, I began to see signs about off-campus sororities. Since women were relatively new to Texas A&M, the administration was struggling to find places for women to get involved on campus.

One of the reasons I had chosen A&M was because it was unlike anywhere else, and while I had some friends who had pledged sororities at other schools, I didn’t even know if sororities would be a right fit for the A&M campus.

I didn’t have family who had been Greek – outside of an aunt who was a Tri Delta at TCU. My mom wasn’t Greek because she went to The Hockaday School back when it was a junior college – so she didn’t get the opportunity to join. (However, when I was on the Council in the late ‘90s, she was able to be a special initiate and sign Xi Kappa’s roll book, which was very meaningful to us both.)

When I was a freshman, I went to Fish Camp (orientation camp), and my Fish Camp counselor, junior Gwen Flynt (Smith), got me involved in student activities. She was Miss Texas A&M three years in a row – beautiful inside and out – and everything a younger woman would aspire to be. She asked me to join a new chapter of Chi Omega – though a senior, she was planning to join, too. Then, I found out several of my closest friends at school were Chi Omega legacies and they were planning to join, as well.

Shelley at Convention 2012 with Xi Kappa Sisters Laurie Otto Pollicoff (Xi Kappa #1 Model Initiate) and little Sister Donna Danklefs Kent.

Once the word got out, we all ended up wanting to learn more about it. Gwen invited me to an event to meet fabulous local alumnae, who would become our advisors and my life-long mentors (Mary Evelyn White, Mary Anne Culpepper, Kay Hamilton, Cathy Jackson and Susan Tremont) – I could sense it was something special.

But it was my grandmother who really encouraged me to join. She had been in a local sorority when she was in college and talked to me about the beauty of the sorority experience. After she passed away, we found a scrapbook of her sorority activities including a poem similar to The Symphony.

Shelley’s grandmother’s pin from her local sorority – which contains striking similarities to the Chi Omega badge.

I always valued her opinion as she was actually the one who taught me about beauty – whether it was arranging flowers, how to set a table….she taught me how to seek beauty in everything.

When it came to sororities, she shared how important it was to meet people and the benefits of being part of a group. Plus, she wanted to buy my badge and pay my dues, so that gave me a little more confidence!

Chi Omegas were the leaders on campus and the ones that wanted to excel academically. Some of the other groups were a little more social and while that was fine – it just wasn’t where I saw myself. Betty Robbins Lloyd, my mother’s friend, was an Iota | Texas Chi Omega and invited me over to her house and showed me her badge. I’ll never forget her telling me “Chi Omega will be what you make of it.” She was a great influence on me and a lifetime mentor.

Shelley with early Xi Kappa advisor and mentor, Former S.T.B. Mary Evelyn White (left) and Fish Camp counselor and Xi Kappa Sister, Gwen Flynt Smith.

Describe yourself as a collegian.

I was very involved on campus, just as I had been in high school. Gwen got me involved in OPAS Opera and Performing Arts Society (of course, she was the first student chair!), and because I was a strong student academically, I was in all of the academic honor societies for women. These were some of the few things women could do at that time on the Aggie campus. And thankfully, because I lived on campus it was really easy to be part of the traditions and activities.

I also became a Fish Camp Counselor – I loved it so much I went back and mentored people like Gwen had done for me. She was the only girl from my high school to attend Texas A&M so I had to get involved to make all new friends.

When you graduated from college, you became a Chapter Visitor for Chi Omega (now called a National Leadership Consultant). What was one of your most memorable visits?

Probably when I met Christelle Ferguson [former Governing Council member and longtime editor of The Eleusis] when I went to LSU. Though she was an initiate of Psi Chapter, she was living in Baton Rouge with Helen “Muff” Gordon (an initiate of Kappa Beta | Rhodes College) and she was lovely. We had the most delightful conversation! I also loved meeting the Phi Gamma collegians. At that time, LSU was probably our largest chapter. The G.H. was from New Orleans and her parents invited me to their home on St. Charles Avenue for the weekend. An absolutely wonderful memory!

Another memorable visit was meeting Sister Miller [our current S.T.B.] at TCU. She was the student body president and everyone loved her. I didn’t realize it, but the chapter members were trying to get me to leave the campus, since they had a social event that night. As I was waiting to go back to the hotel, Laura Shrode (Miller) came through the front door wearing a toga and that’s when the party started – with their Chapter Visitor standing right there!

And for the Pi Sisters, I loved seeing Catherine Burton when I visited Pi/Tennessee!

You have served Chi Omega in so many roles as an alumna – obviously from chapter visitor at first, all the way to the S.H. and many more roles in between. What have been some of your favorite parts of different positions?

I’ve loved serving on the Governing Council with different S.H.s and learning from the ones who went before me. I’ve enjoyed nearly everything I’ve been asked to do in Chi Omega – though the one exception is I’ve never liked closing chapters!

I’ve gained something from every experience, and I wouldn’t have met so many Sisters had I not served in those roles.

Shelley combined her passion for our sorority and landscaping by designing the Myth Garden at the Executive Headquarters in Memphis.

What compels you to continue to say “yes” to Chi Omega?

It’s the PEOPLE. And I wouldn’t trade the friendship, the support, and knowing that you have Sisters who push you to be your best – and the opportunity to champion other women. Our Sisters show us what’s possible.

Xi Kappa Bid Day 2000 – new member niece Erin Eubanks (Crowell), sister-in-law Karen Eubanks and niece Gena Eubanks (Rachal), who joined Xi Kappa in 2002.

Your husband, Jeff, calls you “The Velvet Hammer.” Would you say that’s an accurate description of your leadership style?

I just asked him at lunch today – what is it you were talking about? He said, “you can be so nice and sweet, but at the same time you can be quite firm.”

I’ve kept the bar of excellence high – because that’s what’s been expected of me. I came into this role knowing that I needed to raise the bar even higher. I want that to be part of my legacy, like the torch being passed.

Our Velvet Hammer at work as second woman and first Greek to Chair the Texas A&M The Association of Former Students board.

You’ve had to make many difficult decisions, along with the rest of the Governing Council, during your time as S.H. From where do you draw your sense of direction in challenging times?

I would have to say, it starts with my core values – what I believe in, how I’ve tried to set an example for others, and how to be a person of integrity. In particular, I have a strong sense of fairness. I think a lot of this was learned from my family – my grandparents, from my parents, particularly in regard to selfless service. My family taught me to be a giver – and that’s how I’ve spent my life.

I also like to think about things – my mulling – I try to make good choices for Chi Omega…to ‘choose thoughtfully’, weighing all the options to make solid decisions based on what we know and how it serves the greater good of Chi Omega. Because that’s why I’m here – to foster the greater good.

Shelley, center, being honored as the recipient of the Texas A&M Distinguished Alumnus award in 2019. She is standing with Xi Kappa Sisters.

Describe what a “complete and perfect day” would look like for you.

Well, of course it would begin with a gorgeous sunrise, preferably on a beach, followed by a croissant for breakfast – my favorite. Then I would go to the Dallas Arboretum to see the flowers because that puts a smile on my face no matter what.

Volunteering at the Dallas Arboretum, where she has served on the Board for three years.

In the afternoon, I would connect with Sisters, get “purr therapy,” from a kitty, spend time with Mr. Potter and cook him one of his favorite meals and he cleans up!

Shelley, Jeff, and their beloved (and sadly, late) cat, Woody.

Then, I would end the day with watching a beautiful cardinal sunset!

When you complete your time as S.H. in June 2020 how do you think you’ll feel? What’s next for you?

I am going to feel SO PROUD of everything that has been accomplished. From the day that I accepted the gavel, I think of how far we have come and how the world has changed in so many ways. As we’ve looked back to celebrate Chi Omega’s 125th, I believe Chi Omega has become even more relevant to our members. We are strong, resilient, focusing on what’s important, being Sisters on purpose, reimagining our member experience….I AM really proud. I’ve kept the bar high, and I will encourage the next S.H. to raise it even higher. With what we are experiencing now, it is clear that Chi Omega plays such an important role in making Sisters’ lives better … just as our Founders intended!

Shelley on Bid Day with current Xi Kappa collegians.