Last January, when Lois Capps stood at the podium in Washington D.C. and bid farewell to her colleagues in the House, it was the end of an era. 19 years after her husband, Walter Capps, had passed and she had been voted to replace him as the U.S. Representative for California’s 24th district, Lois stood and thanked the people of California’s Central Coast, her fellow congressmen and women and last, but not least, her irreplaceable staff.
For some, working on Lois’ staff may have just been a nine-to-five job. But for others, like Betsy Umhofer, this role was an irreplaceable opportunity to improve our corner of the world.
In March, former District Representative Umhofer was recognized with the Progress for Women Award at the 41st Women in Distinction awards ceremony at Cuesta College for her achievements in the community.
“I am grateful that people recognize, beyond me and what I have been able to do, that public service is a wonderful path for trying to make a difference. It’s really been a joy— the whole thing,” Umhofer said, speaking on her emotions upon receiving the reward.
In 1996 Umhofer, then a professor at Cal Poly, was approached by Walter, who asked if she would be willing to leave her teaching position to come work for his office.
If you are involved in politics for the right reasons, there are unlimited opportunities to be helpful.
“The job that I obtained when I worked with both Walter and Lois was the job that I wanted after college. My first reaction was ‘What took you so long? I’ve been waiting for this job offer for 30 years,’” Umhofer said. “So, that’s how I came to do the work and I loved it. There were so many opportunities to help people in the community in various ways through that job that I will forever be grateful.”
After Walter’s passing, Umhofer kept her position under Lois, who ran and was sworn into office on March 17th, 1998.
“My title was District Representative for them both and that meant that I was their eyes and ears here in the community,” Umhofer said. “I spent a lot of time working with every non-profit, it seemed at times, and working with the community, including Cal Poly. I worked a lot in health care and I was the representative to the business community. It turns out I was the longest working staff member on the combined Capp staff. When Lois retired in January of last year, so did I.”
She was nominated for the Women in Distinction award by Whitney Gordon, a former coworker in the congressional office. Gordon said she had wanted to nominate Umhofer for years and was waiting for the right time to do so.
“I just always felt like she was someone that I could look up to and who has such a great sense of life,” Gordon said.
Gordon described her awe at the grace and patience Umhofer always displayed when she was approached by the people of San Luis Obispo in public.
“Because she served so many years in the Congressional office people really identified her. I always said she was the closest thing to congresswoman Lois Capps,” Gordon said. “People would see her on the street and they always would stop her and ask ‘How do I solve this problem?’ or ‘What should I do about this?’ And she always would stop and sit and listen.”
I often tell my kids […] during this very challenging time in our country, ‘We will get through this. Watch for the heroes and be one when you can.
Throughout her time serving in this role, Umhofer was exposed to thousands of people and stories, many that have stuck with her to this day.
“The one that I will always remember is the story of the two young women that came from Afghanistan to study here in San Luis Obispo. Professor Maliha Zulfacar went back to Afghanistan every summer to teach young girls and she met, among others, these two young women and knew that they wanted to get an education. So, through Cal Poly and the help of our office they were able to come to [here],” Umhofer said.
The two women were only 19 years old when they moved to the United States, leaving their war torn country and their families behind, both of which they were told they might never see again. Umhofer took it upon herself to be part of their journey by helping them obtain opportunities, internships and resources over the years. To this day she remains in contact with both women, one of whom attended the awards ceremony in March.
“Through a public service role there is so much that one can do for women and for men,” Umhofer said.“If you are involved in politics for the right reasons, there are unlimited opportunities to be helpful. Walter Capps used to refer to it as the ‘greater good.’
Although Umhofer is now retired, her values and strong beliefs about the important work to be done in the congressional office live on.
Political science junior Erin Chazer, who interned for the Congressional District Office last year under Representative Salud Carbajal, spoke of similar guiding principles in her work.
“I had known for a while that [Carbajal} is just a really good guy that wants to do some good in the community and for me, being in that sort of context, and being able to help him do that good, even at small level, is really important to me,” Chazer said. “I learned a lot from this [internship] about getting involved in your community and really trying to fight to make a difference.”
Chazer, similar to Umhofer, exhibited a “constituent-first” mindset during her role within the district office and plans to take this with her as she continues to pursue a career in politics post graduation.
“Working hard to get things done for greater good sounds very simplistic but it really is what [politics] is supposed to be about,” Umhofer said. “I often tell my kids, and other people who ask me during this very challenging time in our country, ‘We will get through this. Watch for the heroes and be one when you can.’”