Bettie Cadou · 2006
By Nelson Price
In addition to being a gifted, award-winning writer and photographer who covered an astonishing range of topics – from the Indiana General Assembly, migrant workers and the homeless to race car drivers, the National Football League, medical issues, and even society news – Bettie Cadou was a beloved educator and, probably above all else, a Hoosier pioneer.
She will forever be associated with a trail-blazing effort that made international headlines. It happened in 1971, almost half a dozen years even before the first woman driver to compete at the Indianapolis 500, Janet Guthrie, showed up in the pit and garage area of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was decades before the triumphs achieved by Guthrie’s successors such as Lyn St. James and Danica Patrick.
Ever since the world’s largest single-day sporting event began in 1911, no women had been allowed in the garage area and pits. Not even women sponsors, women mechanics (if there had been any), women spectators or women journalists. Reporting for The Indianapolis News, Bettie Cadou and a colleague, Mary McCloskey, shattered the “no-women” prohibition forever.
Fearless, quick-witted and indefatigable, they fought for – and eventually obtained – coveted silver credential badges that permitted access to the pit and garage areas of the world-famous racetrack.
Newspapers around the country in May 1971 carried a wire-service photo of a teeming group of mostly male journalists. In the middle of the testosterone pack, Bettie Cadou was snapping pictures with her camera as she stood near a row of Indy race cars moments before the famous (and, years later, obsolete) “Gentlemen, start your engines” command. Women had arrived. Bettie had spearheaded the charge, but she was just focusing on doing her job with her notepad and camera.
Known for her quick wit, booming laugh and penetrating questions, Bettie worked for several newspapers and magazines before she died in 2002. Her byline appeared in everything from Sports Illustrated and The New York Times (for both of which she served as a stringer) to The Hammond Times, for which she covered the Statehouse in Indianapolis. At The Indianapolis News, where she worked for ten years, Cadou and a photographer toiled as migrant workers; their expose about deplorable working conditions won Bettie her first CASPER Award, an honor for community service given to Central Indiana journalists. For the series in August 1971, titled “Children of the Field,” Bettie lived among migrant workers picking cucumbers near Frankfort. Her series almost immediately resulted in changes in state laws that improved sanitation and working conditions for migrant laborers.
Whatever her media outlet and regardless of her beat, Bettie was unforgettable – and not just because her artful, nuanced writing captured more than 50 first-place awards by professional organizations.
“Bettie was important to Indianapolis journalism, but, even more importantly to someone like me, she was a true trailblazer for women,” recalled Mary Dieter, the long-time Statehouse bureau chief for The Louisville Courier-Journal. “We had been relegated to the background, the society pages, and that little tiny thing even pushed her way into sports!”
That “little tiny thing” was born in Bainbridge, Ind., on New Year’s Day of 1936. Her mother was an amateur poet, artist and classical pianist. In later years, Bettie recalled how much she enjoyed listening to her mother play “Moonlight Sonata.” Her mother worked as a telephone operator; her father was a police officer. After her parents divorced, Bettie moved with her mother and siblings several times as she grew up in the Crawfordsville area.
The family didn’t have much money, but Bettie eventually obtained a bachelor of arts degree in English from Indiana University. For about half a dozen years at the end of her life, Bettie Stickler Fruits Cadou returned to academia as an adjunct professor. While working full-time as special projects editor and a writer for Indianapolis Woman magazine, she taught evening courses in journalism (feature writing) at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis as well as at Butler University. On both campuses, Bettie’s popularity among students – whom she called her “chickadees” – was legendary.
“She prepared me before I covered my first press conference at age 18, and later advised me on my writing and future career choices,” recalled Kyle Schmitt, a former Butler student. “Bettie delighted in helping her ‘little chickadees’ learn the journalistic trade, going so far as to arrange internships for the university’s students . . .
“Every female sportswriter owes a debt of gratitude to Bettie Cadou, and every journalist can look to her as an example of someone who upheld the profession’s standards while creating opportunities for others through sheer force of talent and will.”
In between her beginnings in Bainbridge and her Butler and IUPUI years, Bettie became the mother of two daughters and a son: Kitty, Tad and Laura.
As a longtime resident of Speedway – and a fixture at the famous racetrack in her neighborhood, barriers be damned – she was hired as a babysitter by Al Unser Jr., who had been the subject of one of Bettie’s profiles. Her profile for Indianapolis Monthly magazine of Indiana-born NASCAR and Indy car driver Tony Stewart won a national feature-writing award in 1998. By the end of Cadou’s life, she had become a member of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association.
Talented as both a writer and photographer, Bettie Cadou never backed down from getting a story that needed to be told. She once was pushed off a truck while covering a Ku Klux Klan rally in Indiana. For another assignment, she took a photo while hanging upside down on a Ferris wheel.
She also covered her hometown NFL team, the Indianapolis Colts, as a stringer for Sports Illustrated – undoubtedly, as she often put it, becoming “the first grandmother” to tackle (or be granted) such an assignment. According to some accounts, her Colts stories occasionally appeared without bylines or taglines because some editors were uncomfortable with a woman’s name on an NFL story.
Even though some of her work was not credited, Bettie Cadou was familiar in many ways to generations of journalists across Indiana. She served for several years on the board of directors of the Indianapolis chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, organizing workshops and judging dozens of competitions. In between her various jobs in journalism, Bettie also worked in public relations for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and for Butler University.
When Bettie Cadou died in September 2002, scores of her journalistic colleagues, former students and story subjects packed a “celebration of life” service at the Indianapolis Arts Center. It seemed as though everyone in town, from Speedway officials to newspaper reporters and university professors, had a colorful “Bettie story” to share.