“Wow! Look at that one,” said Dr. Conte of his first impression. “That’s what I first thought. There was a green dress, and I wasn’t the only one who said, ‘Oh my, look at her.’”
Nearly 31-years later, Dr. Conte and Betsy (Powers) Conte are preparing to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary and cherishing a love story that is almost as unlikely as it is inspiring.
How do a California boy and a Carolina girl end up building a life together in the mountains of West Virginia? The only way this couple, which isn't shy about its faith, can describe being brought together is that God had a hand in their story.
Bob, a native of San Jose, California, who studied history at Santa Clara University and obtained a Ph.D. in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University, was working in Washington, D.C., when he first saw The Greenbrier in 1976. While visiting Pipestem State Park, Bob and a friend traveled to White Sulphur Springs, because they had heard there was something famous there. After a few trips up and down Main Street, and seeing nothing famous, they turned into The Greenbrier and found the famed location for which they had been searching.
“If you come to The Greenbrier with no preconceived notions about what to expect, it’s pretty amazing,” said Bob. “I was blown away.”
He left, though, thinking it was the last time he would see the place.
Two years later, Bob, who was 31 at the time and working on a project for the National Archives, got a call from The Greenbrier’s general manager, Bill Pitt, who wanted him to go through the records stored in the attic of the historic resort and begin to archive the collection.
Bob, whose present job was about to run out of grant money, accepted, and he moved to West Virginia, settling in Monroe County, where he was impressed by the back-to-the-land movement that was occuring there. He expected to stay a few years and move onto the next adventure.
Ten years after Bob was hired at The Greenbrier, and the archives still weren't fully catalogued, Betsy, who had developed a wardrobe consulting business in her hometown of Charlotte, N.C., after graduating from Radford College and getting a Master’s from Virginia Tech, was looking for a change. She had visited The Greenbrier to present her wardrobe program on the request of Vivian Conley and Anne Walker, who worked for the resort. They had been impressed with her work, so when a position opened for a Director of Social Activities, they asked Betsy if she would be interested.
“I really felt called to The Greenbrier,” said Betsy. “It was just a matter of changing course in life. It was a nice fit. It was a change.
“My mother and daddy thought I had lost my mind. They said, ‘You’re leaving Charlotte?’ I just needed to take a little detour. I expected to come back in five years or less.”
It didn’t take long, though, for plans to change.
When Betsy arrived at The Greenbrier in September of 1988, she immediately made an impression on Bob. Since part of her job description involved giving tours of the property, Bob, who by that time had transitioned into the role of historian, decided it was his duty to show the newest team member around the property and pass on his knowledge of the famed resort.
“When I approached her, I was doing my role and passing on information,” said Bob with a chuckle. “I mean, what else was I supposed to do?”
The date, or the tour — even today, the couple isn’t exactly sure what to call that first encounter — started right after lunch and included a walk through The Greenbrier property and a drive well beyond. Bob’s tour of the grounds and the surrounding history included a stop in Sweet Springs and a visit to a cemetery.
“On our first date, we went to a cemetery, and I’ve never lived it down,” he remembers. “But I was trying to put The Greenbrier in context with the other resorts in the 19th century. And there was some reason this cemetery was of some significance.”
Fortunately for Bob, the date got better from there.
“Bob just brought history to life,” said Betsy. “We just had fun. I remember that first day, we were out for hours. We left right after lunch. It was close to 7 o’clock, and we had traced all over the property. We were down at golf and then came back into hotel and Bob said, ‘I guess you’re probably hungry?’”
So Bob walked Betsy to one of The Greenbrier’s most iconic spots, The Main Dining Room, where they were greeted by longtime captain Jack O’Donnell, who told the two he had the perfect table for them — an out of the way table for two, where they wouldn’t be disturbed.
“Jack knew what he was doing,” said Bob with a laugh.
“It was the perfect table for two, and it was a wonderful dinner and a wonderful evening,” added Betsy. “I’m here. I’m from Charlotte. I don’t know anybody, and Bob had spent his entire day with me. It was extraordinary.”
After dinner, Bob took Betsy to the balcony of The Greenbrier Suite, where the two could look out over the entire immaculate property.
“It was so overwhelming to me,” said Betsy. “I believe it was love at first sight. They talk about chemistry between people. The chemistry was just, ‘BAM!’”
Bob wanted to see more of Betsy and Betsy more of Bob after that first amazing night, but for some time the lines between work and romance were blurred. Bob did his best to help Betsy familiarize herself with every aspect of the property, but because of what he perceived as a major age gap, he wasn’t sure whether to move full speed ahead.
“I misjudged Betsy’s age,” he explained with a chuckle. “I thought she was considerably younger than me. One day when we were walking across the grounds, she happened to mention her age. She was closer to my age than I thought, which meant fair game. So all of the sudden, the picture shifted.
“I had her pegged as 32, and I was 42. I thought that was too much. But we were walking along, and she happened to say she was 37. That shaved off five years.”
So Bob went all in with his courtship of Betsy, a romance that took place in plain view of nearly everyone who visited The Greenbrier.
“At that time, Betsy’s desk was in the middle of the lobby,” Bob remembers. “There’s not much privacy in the lobby of a resort. I don’t think it was any secret. I would walk by her desk all the time, and there was always a reason.”
Bob did everything to try to impress the redhead in the green dress. He had blown some inheritance money on a fancy new sports car, and on one of his walks around the property, he made sure to show off those wheels.
“I was walking along, and I said, ‘Oh, I need to get something in my car,” said Bob. “Of course, there was nothing in the car. But she reacted perfectly and said, ‘Oh, that’s your car?'
“When you’re a historian, you have an image problem. So the snazzy car helped.”
Six months after that initial tour of the property, the romance was blossoming and moving quickly. The couple points to a wine dinner in the Crystal Room at The Greenbrier in March of 1989 as a moment that it realized something out of the ordinary was happening.
“I don’t know that anything particular happened there, but by that time there was a sense of comfort,” said Bob, who pointed out that the couple still has the menu from that dinner hanging in their dining room. “There had been some of those one step forward and two steps back situations, but by that point, we thought we could make this happen.
“We had both been married before, and we pretty quickly figured out that this was a good deal.”
On July 1, 1989, 10 months after the courtship began, the couple married in front of the iconic Springhouse on The Greenbrier property.
“It was just beautiful,” said Betsy. “It was a perfect day. Someone later said that it was supposed to rain all day, but it never rained.”
The reception took place at the Presidents Cottage Museum, a special place in the history of The Greenbrier, which also became a special location to the Contes.
The honeymoon was one night at The Greenbrier. They moved into Bob’s home just south of Union, West Virginia, and settled into a life together.
“We went right to it,” said Bob. “We had two children the first three years. We were a little more mature, and we knew what we wanted. We were committed to the idea of marriage. There was the romance end of it, but there was also the idea of making it work. We had both seen other ones not work, and we weren’t going to do that again.”
In a way, Bob and Betsy agree, that the last 30 years have been one big honeymoon. They love to travel together and have been to New York, Florida, California, Hawaii, Italy, Ireland and many other exotic locations together. All, in Betsy’s words, have been, “Just wonderful trips.”
The day-to-day interaction at work has never grown stale, either.
Bob and Betsy don’t subscribe to the notion of not talking about work at home. The Greenbrier is a huge part of their lives, and they talk about the grand resort on a daily basis.
“It’s just part of our lives,” said Betsy. “We talk about work, scheduling, kids, vacation, it’s just completely meshed. We’re here and we’re family. Not being from this area, we were adopted by so many. It’s a beautiful place to live.
“We love coming to work, and we love what we do here. We continue to focus on guests and other team members, and we really do have a good time. We’ve just had a blessed and great life. It has truly flown by.”
As much as they enjoy their time together, Bob and Betsy also believe it’s important to have their own hobbies and interests. Bob loves to golf and spends many spring and summer afternoons on the famous courses around The Greenbrier. Betsy is still into fashion. She gives seminars from time to time and sells cosmetics as a side job.
Together, Bob and Betsy have two children, Mary Cecilia and Nicholas. Mary Cecilia graduated from Wake Forest University and is currently working in the Monroe County school system. Nicholas, who also graduated from Wake Forest, is currently living in Salt Lake City and is a member of the Utah National Guard. He will soon enroll at the University of Utah to pursue a law degree.
Bob also has two boys from a previous marriage, Sam, who is a registered nurse at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Daniel, who lives in Emmonak, Alaska, and teaches English. Sam has a 4-year-old daughter, Ramona, Bob and Betsy’s only grandchild.
And it all began with The Greenbrier and a green dress.