Risking Everything: Betty Van der Smissen's Contributions Have Influenced Outdoor Programming, Legal Liability, Research and the Accreditation Fields

Parks & Recreation, August 2005 | Go to article overview

Risking Everything: Betty Van der Smissen's Contributions Have Influenced Outdoor Programming, Legal Liability, Research and the Accreditation Fields


For the past 50 years, Betty van der Smissen has blazed her own path. She entered the legal profession at a time when women were the exception. She continued as a leader through her career-long involvement in revising and developing national accreditation standards for universities, park and recreation agencies, organized camping and adventure/challenge programs. Additionally, her research on legal liability and negligence in recreation remains the authority today. But the icon of recreation does not think she has made that much of an impact, although, her friends and colleagues disagree.

"What happens with our leaders like Betty, who have been in the field for the length of time her career spans, is people get so used to them being there that they don't necessarily realize all of their accomplishments and contributions," says Rita Yerkes, dean of the school of experiential leadership at Aurora University.

In 1965, van der Smissen completed the reference guide, Standards and Evaluative Criteria, which introduced best management practices for parks and recreation operations. Concurrently, she delved into research, compiling the first bibliography of theses and dissertations for parks, recreation and camping. During this time she also served on the first editorial board of the Journal of Leisure Research.

van der Smissen combined her interests in recreation and law in her 1968 book, Legal Liability of Cities and Schools for Injuries in Parks and Recreation, and in the early '70s introduced a course on legal aspects at Penn State University. However, it was not until the early 1980s, when legal liability and risk management became real issues with key decisions in lawsuits reducing the immunity protection of municipalities and non-profit groups.

"We became a very litigious society [back then]," van der Smissen says, "and these entities began to be held responsible for injuries. All of this business of litigation came really after I published my book, and I happened to have the right background and education that permitted me to contribute uniquely to the profession," van der Smissen says. …

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