ORBIS International is saddened to report the death of its founding co-director and former president
Betsy Trippe DeVecchi. Betsy died at her home in
New York on Friday, April 24 at the age of 77.
“In the pantheon of those whose vision, energies and actions gave birth to ORBIS in the early 1970s,
Betsy Trippe DeVecchi stands tall,” said
Ned Cloonan, president and CEO of the nonprofit.
The daughter of Juan Trippe, founder and first president of Pan American Airways, Betsy had aviation in her blood. Indeed, her first flight came when she was just three weeks old, when her father flew her to the family home in
East Hampton on an amphibian aircraft.
With her love of aviation and a lifelong commitment to philanthropy, Betsy was one of the first to be recruited to support the idea of an airborne flying eye hospital, conceived by her good friend and college classmate David Paton, head of the ophthalmology Department at Baylor College of Medicine in
Texas. Betsy joined Dr. Paton at a momentous lunch in 1973 during which they presented the ORBIS idea to A. L. Ueltschi, founder and chairman of FlightSafety International, whose support would be instrumental in acquiring an aircraft to serve as the first incarnation of the
Within a few months of that gathering, Betsy, A. L. Ueltschi and Dr. Francis L’Esperance, a New York City ophthalmologist, inspired Eddie Carlson, chairman of United Airlines, to donate an out-of service short-body DC-8 — the oldest one still around and the number three off the production line. With a grant from USAID and funds from private donors, extensive modifications were made to convert the plane into a fully functional teaching eye hospital, and in 1982 it took off to
Panama for its first mission.
Betsy remained an active supporter of ORBIS throughout her lifetime, serving as a member of its board of directors from 1973 until her death, and as president from 1979-85.
“Betsy was an extraordinarily generous supporter of many worthy causes,” said Cloonan. “But her unique role in the founding and establishment of ORBIS permits us to claim a special part of her legacy. Among her final gifts to ORBIS was guiding the decision to acquire and convert the third airplane to serve as our Flying Eye Hospital, which is anticipated to take to the skies on its first sight-saving mission in 2011 — a fitting tribute to a woman whose spirit and friendship will continue to uplift us all.”
“For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales”
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Locksley Hall
“All diseases quench’d by Science, no man halt, or deaf or blind;
Stronger ever born of weaker, lustier body, larger mind?
Earth at last a warless world, a single race, a single tongue—
I have seen her far away—for it not Earth as yet so young?”
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Locksley Hall Sixty Years After
The first stanza above is the official motto of United Air Lines pilots, and is presented here as a tribute to Betsy Trippe DeVecchi whose vision of a world where free from unnecessary blindness gave birth to Project ORBIS International. In 1973 Betsy quoted a second stanza from another Tennyson poem to convince United Airlines to donate a DC-8 for ORBIS to convert into the world’s first flying eye hospital.
"ORBIS has had an enormous impact on my life as well as in thousands of people around the world whose sight has been saved. ORBIS is a truly humanitarian endeavor. This is not only a great medical project, but a demonstration of functional diplomacy and the creative use of aircraft.”