The neutral palette of philanthropist Betty Puskar’s Morgantown home serves as a blank canvas for her colorful personality and storied life.
We published this story about Morgantown philanthropist Betty Puskar in the Summer 2009 issue of WV Living. Puskar passed away on June 14, 2020, having survived breast cancer and lived a full and generous life of 80 years. We are reposting our story in remembrance.
Betty Puskar purchased the Hare Farm in 2001 intending to use some of the acreage for youth baseball fields. She then renovated the original home and, with the help of architect Larry Martin, expanded it by adding two wings. “My house is not traditional, and it’s not contemporary. It is just a home,” she says.
Family and friends are what matter most to Puskar, and her Morgantown home serves as a gathering place for all those she holds dear. “That’s what life is all about. You can have everything in the world, but if you are sitting in a wine cellar by yourself with no one to enjoy it with, that’s no life,” she says. In that spirit, her home is always filled with the laughter of her friends—and two of the most important people in her life—her daughter, Johanna, and grandson, Kyle.
Everyone who is acquainted with Puskar, who founded the Betty Puskar Breast Care Center in Morgantown after battling breast cancer, is instantly taken with her vibrant personality, sense of humor, and gracious demeanor. Her trademark red hair and sparkling eyes are always accompanied by a bright smile. “She’s an angel—an absolute angel,” says longtime friend Barbara Alexander McKinney. “She is so much fun to be around, and she always looks at the world through rose-colored glasses. She genuinely has a heart of gold.”
Befitting an angel, her home has an ethereal quality. It is a calming retreat from a chaotic world. The soft scheme of neutral whites and creams is carried throughout, seamlessly connecting a 1920s farmhouse with a new contemporary addition. “I bought the property eight years ago—and that’s a story and a half,” she laughs. “My grandson, Kyle, had spent the night, and the next morning I took him to his baseball game, but the game was rained out. Kyle said, ‘I don’t want to go home—let’s go to that auction we just passed.’”
So on a whim they stopped at a small, dilapidated farmhouse that overlooked 104 acres. Eleven-year-old Kyle, who was concerned that his middle school was going to lose its baseball fields, said, “Look at all that land! Think of how many ballfields we could have here!” Betty agreed, asked for an auction number, and handed it to Kyle.
“Around 20 people were bidding. Jeff Hostetler wanted it for a horse farm. The Chico family wanted it, as well as several developers,” Betty recalls. “It came down to the very end, and there was $25,000 difference between our bids, and the auctioneer looked at me and said, ‘Don’t let this land go.’ And before I knew it, he said, ‘SOLD!’ Kyle smiled ear to ear and said, ‘Congratulations, Grandma. I’m so happy for you.’ I immediately broke out in a cold sweat.” Betty had to leave a 10 percent down payment before she left, and her hand shook as she wrote the check. She says, “When I handed the lady the check, she said, ‘Ms. Puskar, you don’t have enough zeros.’”
“I love this room. Everyone gravitates here. It holds 3,600 bottles of wine, and every bottle has a story,” says Puskar. “Collecting wine is my favorite hobby. It is a souvenir I bring back from traveling that I get to enjoy with friends. And I’ve made more friends over a bottle of wine …”
Word traveled fast. No one could believe that Betty Puskar had just purchased this rundown farmhouse. When Alexander heard, she immediately called her friend. She innocently asked, “So, what did you do today?” To which Puskar sheepishly replied, “I went shopping.” So Alexander said, “Well, I went to Elder-Beerman and bought two pairs of shoes. What did you buy?” Puskar said, “A farmhouse.”
Puskar and Alexander laugh as they tell the story. “When I told Barbara, she said ‘You go girl. Best move you’ve ever made!’ She was the only person, though, that didn’t think I was off my rocker,” Puskar laughs.
She intended only to live there while she built another house on a piece of property in Lakeview. “I renovated the little farmhouse, but I never intended to live there very long. I just didn’t want to tear it down. But I fell in love with it and decided to build an addition around it,” she says. The home has timeless appeal and a genre-defying style that is much like her personality. Everything in her home tells a story—from the Mackenzie Thorpe artwork she purchased in London to the bronze sculpture she purchased in celebration of her reconstructive surgery. Whether an item comes from T.J. Maxx or Pier One or is a one-of-a-kind piece like the Bill Mack that took seven men to hang, she loves them all equally. “I love to shop, and I shop everywhere,” she says. “One of my favorite places is T.J. Maxx when a new shipment comes in.”
Puskar’s current lifestyle is a far cry from her childhood. She grew up in Snakes Run, Virginia, and credits her upbringing for her positive outlook on life and for her passion to give back. “There were eight of us kids, and we lived way back in the woods. You couldn’t even get a car to our house, and we didn’t have electricity. My mother taught me to always be kind, to always tell the truth, and to never look at anything negatively—that there was always some way to make every situation a positive one.”
She recalls that her family was often the recipient of charity. At the beginning of every school year, each child got one new outfit and a new pair of shoes. “All of our clothes were given to us, and at Christmas we always received a basket for the needy,” she says. “I was a junior in high school, and I didn’t have shoes. I told my mother that I was embarrassed, but my mother said, ‘Don’t think of the shoes, think of how pretty your feet are.’ But my feet were really ugly—My teacher ended up buying me a pair of shoes.”
Betty admits that she was a daring and adventurous child. “I knew that I would leave Snake Run. When I graduated, I worked in a factory, and then my girlfriend and I, with $15 to our name, picked up and moved to Richmond, Virginia, on our own. We wanted to live in a big city. I left with a pair of high heel shoes and a blue suit I’d bought for Easter. I lasted two weeks and then returned home to attend Covington Business College.” She was working as a soda jerk at Downer Hardware in Covington, Virginia, when she met her future husband, Milan “Mike” Puskar.
“I’ve had a great life,” she says. “I’ve had very few bad days.” One of those few bad days—the day she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer—changed the direction and focus of her life. “I didn’t even know what cancer was,” she recalls. “I didn’t take birth control pills. I was petrified about chemicals in my body. I jogged every day. I was blindsided.” She was only 45 years old, and her doctor gave her one to three years to live. “I knew that I wasn’t going to die. It never, ever, ever, ever entered my mind that I would not live,” she says. “I didn’t cry. I wasn’t going to waste my energy on crying when I needed it to get well. I was determined that I would beat it.”
There were no breast cancer treatment centers in West Virginia at the time, so Puskar received treatment at the M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston, Texas. During the strenuous months of chemotherapy, her marriage came to an end. But she survived—and returned home with a mission: to create a breast cancer center for West Virginia women. Today, the Betty Puskar Breast Care Center at West Virginia University’s Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center—the first of its kind in West Virginia—provides state-of-the-art comprehensive breast care. She also continues to raise money for the center by sponsoring the Betty Puskar Futures Golf Classic LPGA Golf Tournament and the annual Betty Puskar Breast Care Center Fashion Show, held each October. Patrick Stanislawczyk, chair of the fashion show, says that he’d do anything for Puskar. “As I’ve worked with Betty, I have learned so much about her. She is beautiful inside and out—and she is funny, funny, funny! I’ve never known her to have a bad day, no matter what is going on in her life.”
Fairmont Kitchen Center designed the sleek and contemporary kitchen. Puskar chose Vangura rather than granite for the countertops and purchased the bar stools at T.J. Maxx. Open shelves display old Seneca glass and Waterford crystal she collected when she lived in Ireland.
Puskar’s favorite room in her house is her bathroom, and it’s easy to see why. With its soaring ceilings punctuated by several skylights, freestanding egg-shaped bathtub from Koval’s in Morgantown, large multiple-head shower, vessel sinks, and walk-in closets to die for, it is a tranquil, spa-like retreat.
“I love decorating with black and white. It is very clean. I also chose my color palette because it gives me a blank canvas to work with. If I want to redecorate, I don’t have to replace everything,” Puskar explains.
The wall of windows in the family room brings the stunning countryside indoors, framing the scene like a piece of artwork. Puskar chooses large scale furniture to make the room comfortable. “I love all the natural light and the uninterrupted views,” she says.
After Puskar had reconstructive surgery, she purchased this bronze sculpture. “I love that she is looking in the mirror and putting herself together. That’s what I had to do. When I saw it, I thought, ‘That’s me.’ Everything in my home has a story.”
Puskar sponsors several charity events that raise funds for The Betty Puskar Breast Care Center. The Betty Puskar Golf Classic is an annual golf tournament for professional women golfers on the FUTURES Tour, the LPGA’s developmental tour. In October, the highly anticipated Betty Puskar Fashion Show, another benefit for the Breast Care Center, brings breast cancer survivors and fashion together.
A house becomes a home when it is filled with laughter. “My friends and family are my most treasured possessions,” Puskar says.
written by Nikki Bowman
photography by Rebecca Devono