Quintessential People

Elizabeth Corwith Bramsen: Her Determined Nature


by lisa stamos | Photo: thomas balsamo

There are some things you never forget. As Betsy Bramsen sat down with me for dinner on November 14, 2017, our conversation began with a memory that was on her mind.

“It was 17 years ago this week that I was diagnosed with cancer,” Betsy said. Seven months after her cancer diagnosis and treatment, Betsy was determined to participate in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, which ran from Kenosha to Chicago. She made her goal for the event by walking and by raising funds. Like the Avon Walk, another celebratory moment transpired in her life. “Ten years later, there was a birthday party for me, with the surprise that the head oncology doctors from the hospital were there. My husband, Jim, announced that a professorship was being created by my family and friends in my honor at Northwest Memorial Hospital—the Betsy Bramsen Professorship of Breast Oncology.”

After sharing a few words about this threatening stop upon her life’s journey, and sharing her cancer survivor status openly, Betsy sat back and shared moments of her life and the major influences through a lens with a longer view—one about the small-town girl in Illinois who grew up to be a major philanthropic ambassador for Mother Nature and our precious natural habitats.

“I grew up in Wayne [18 miles south of Barrington] and was outdoors all the time,” Betsy said of her childhood spent in the woods and creeks that surrounded her home. “Wayne had a population of 350 people then, and we had horses to get around. We would often meet up with others and ride for the entire day,” she said. Riding horses and competing nationally was a way of life for this young girl and her sister who learned horsemanship alongside their highly-accomplished equestrian mother. “I rode and competed in eventing, hunter-jumper, dressage, and driving carriages. Riding across the countryside and foxhunting fostered my love of the land.”

In Wayne, Betsy grew up alongside dairy farmers who sowed corn, wheat, soybeans, and alfalfa—a similar profile of land use in Barrington during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. But times were changing, and commercial developments began encroaching into farmland and open spaces. In 1970, Betsy remembers going to see the newly built Woodfield Mall and was surprised that it was set in the middle of wheat fields. “I went to see it as a tourist!” she said.

Betsy’s parents were devoted to land stewardship and set the example that their three children would follow. Her parents had grown up in Chicago and Lake Forest, and after they married, lived in Wayne on property they purchased in 1941 for $500 an acre. Betsy’s father, Corwith Hamill, was well known for his passion about nature and conservation, and he served as chairman of the Chicago Zoological Society. Betsy’s mother, Joan Birnie Byron Smith Hamill, is remembered as a driving force behind the creation of the Illinois Prairie Path, 61 miles of networked trails from Maywood to Aurora and Elgin. It was the first “rails to trails” pathway created in the United States. She also founded the Wayne-DuPage Hunt Pony Club. In 1998, the Hamills donated to The Conservation Foundation a 9-acre conservation easement on their property near Norris Creek, which flows into the Fox River. This wooded property was where the family enjoyed nature and the Hamill children fostered their love of the outdoors.

The Hamills are well-known for their multigenerational conservation philanthropy and leadership. For example, the Hamills have served the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS) from one generation to the next since its founding in 1921. (See sidebar.)

Betsy and her two siblings are committed to preserving natural resources as their parents had modeled throughout their lives. Along with her sister, Nancy Corwith Hamill Winter, and brother, Jonathan Corwith Hamill, Betsy has followed her parents’ conservation lead through several efforts of the Hamill Family Foundation.

One of the recent contributions was a transformational gift to The Conservation Foundation [based in Naperville]. Some of the funds are earmarked to acquire land in the lower Fox River Valley in Kendall and LaSalle Counties. The land that is being purchased now is a 135-acre parcel along Little Rock Creek where it flows into the Fox River. Little Rock Creek is one of the highest quality streams in Northern Illinois. A stretch of 1.3 miles along this creek in Kendall County will become a forest preserve open to the public for fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and hiking. This purchase will also help leverage the acquisition of several other properties. The Conservation Foundation has also launched a public education and outreach campaign to promote the importance of the Fox River to the communities in the Fox River Valley with help from the Hamill Family Foundation gift.

As determined as Bramsen is at preserving nature everywhere she goes, there is another call to action that she answers with regularity. “I have run 15 marathons since I turned 57,” Betsy said. “I have fun running outside, and it’s the best part of my day when I’m out in nature in the morning light. The Barrington area is a runner’s and biker’s paradise, especially when you get to see a pair of sandhill cranes along the way. Our forefathers were so wise to have created this space we know as Barrington Hills.”

The outdoorsy sportswoman seems to have an endless list of sports she enjoys that includes skiing, mountain hiking, swimming, riding bikes, and paddle boarding. Her biggest love is horseback riding across the countryside. She believes that horses and the equestrian lifestyle are imperative and inherent to preserving our open spaces.

“The local equestrian trails are maintained by the Riding Club of Barrington Hills, Betsy said. “You can [ride] in Barrington Hills for miles across private land and into the Forest Preserves—it is incredible, stupendous. The countryside of Virginia looks beautiful, but it doesn’t have an extensive trail system and it is not open like Barrington Hills for horseback riders.”

Betsy’s love of nature and the outdoors was learned in the center of the Midwest, and she has spent much of her life working to preserve open spaces here. She says you don’t have to go far to see natural beauty. “Illinois is so beautiful. Go out and look at the oaks, and the fields. We’re in the heartland.”

The Hamills and Chicago Zoological Society

The Chicago Zoological Society is a private nonprofit organization that operates Brookfield Zoo on land owned by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. The Hamill family has played an instrumental role in the founding and preservation of the

Chicago Zoological Society for four generations. Betsy Bramsen’s great-grandfather, Ernest Hamill, was a founding trustee of the Chicago Zoological Society. Her grandfather, Alfred Hamill, was a trustee. Her father, Corwith Hamill, was a trustee from 1954 until his death in 2013. He served as chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1974 to 1980, and Chairman Emeritus from 1980 to 2013. Betsy is a trustee and serves as a vice chair of the Board.

In June 2001, the Hamill Family Play Zoo opened to offer families a way to engage and educate children about nature. Set on two acres at Brookfield Zoo, there are three attractions within the Hamill Family Play Zoo: The Zoo within a Zoo; Zoo @ Home; and Play Gardens. Since its’ opening, the facility has helped millions of children learn to care about nature and how to help protect it for future generations.

Organizations That Elizabeth Bramsen Has Been Interested in and Supported:

  • Barrington Area Conservation Trust—Founding and Current Board Member
  • Barrington Historical Society
  • Barrington White House
  • Chicago Zoological Society (Brookfield Zoo)
  • Citizens for Conservation
  • Equine Land Conservation Resource—Former Board Member
  • Fox River Valley Hound Heritage Foundation—Founding Member
  • Friends of the Forest Preserves (Cook County)
  • Garfield Farm in La Fox, Ill.
  • Global Heritage Fund in Myanmar
  • Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society
  • Illinois Conservation Foundation
  • Illinois Prairie Path
  • Jo Davies Conservation Foundation
  • John G. Shedd Aquarium
  • Land Conservancy of McHenry County
  • Land Trust Alliance
  • Max Mc Graw Wildlife Foundation
  • Openlands
  • Preservation Foundation of the Lake Country Forest Preserves
  • The Conservation Foundation
  • The Nature Conservancy of Illinois
  • Wayne Area Conservancy Foundation—Founder and Board Member
  • WTTW – Nature Cat, PBS Seasons 1, 2, and 3
  • Yosemite Conservancy (California)

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In Her Words

I am passionate about animals, open spaces, and nature. In the Barrington area, we enjoy a unique lifestyle in that we are surrounded by large parcels of open landscape—both publicly and private owned. Yet, we are close to Chicago, one of the world’s great cities, and all it has to offer. The open spaces we enjoy in Barrington exist because those who were here before us had the foresight and vision to create and preserve them, and they cared about how the community would look and function in the future. They understood the value of protecting wildlife.

After a parking lot has been paved, or a building foundation is laid, it is too late to ‘save the land’. My goal is to help protect the open land and habitats throughout the Barrington area and to ensure that we are a healthy community where nature abounds.

– Elizabeth Bramsen, February 2018

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Recent Awards for Elizabeth Bramsen


  • Philanthropist of the Year—Presented by the West Suburban
  • Philanthropic Network


  • Outstanding Conservation Philanthropy Award—Presented by The
  • Chicago Zoological Society


  • Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame Person of the Year—Presented by
  • Illinois Conservation Foundation
  • Illinois Conservation Foundation Chairman’s Award for Youth Conservation

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Here are some words that others shared about Betsy Bramsen

Kim Duchossois, Friend

Mention Betsy Bramsen and a few dozen things come instantly to mind. Her passion and love are admirable for so many things—horses, dogs, marathons, Brookfield Zoo, open land, riding trails, nature, conservation, preservation, treasured family, travel, adventure, tradition, her wonderful homes, forever friendships, high-heeled shoes, fancy dresses, fabulous parties, and last but never, ever least, her dear and very patient husband Jim!

Longtime neighbors just down the road, Betsy and Jim Bramsen were first introduced to me by my beloved brother Bruce, with whom Betsy first became acquainted. They shared many mutual interests and friendship for years. But I have personally come to know Betsy more intimately in this last decade as we found much common ground through loss, celebration, conservation, and support of our very appreciated community of Barrington and beyond.

Betsy is smart, direct, and experienced in matters great and small. She is dedicated to her mission, whatever that might be, and determined to move the needle whether to beat her last personal best, or, to protect a species of wildlife. If you bristle with opinions, be forewarned, as she’s earned ‘em! This girl has grit and squeezes every last bit out of life’s blessed offerings, and then graciously shares her bounty with others. Heartfelt congratulations on this well-deserved honor, Betsy.

Eliza Kerr, Daughter
Crow White, Son

It is a great honor to write these words of support for our mother. We grew up in a family that spent lots of time outdoors—in the fields, creeks, and of course, horse pastures all around Barrington. Mom was always encouraging us to get outside and explore our surroundings, and it was this encouragement that eventually gave us the confidence to venture beyond the Midwest to the mountains and coasts out West. She, and her parents, also instilled in us early in our lives the value of preserving wild and open spaces for all to enjoy. From the National Parks we visited on family road trips, to the land preserves she helped establish around Chicagoland, to cleaning up rubbish in the green corridors along the roads in Barrington, all our lives Mom has demonstrated an indefatigable passion and energy for conservation. Personally for us, one of her great legacies is the strong conservation ethos she helped develop in her children.

As we grew older, our mother’s commitment to conservation translated into her guiding us in how to promote and support conservation projects in the places we lived and love. The practice of philanthropy—for conservation or whatever the cause—is unfamiliar to many, and would have been to us, as well, had it not been for our mother. She shared with us her land conservation projects and successes, advised us in the logistics of philanthropy, and even offered to match our donations to conservation causes of our choosing.

We are so thankful for this upbringing, and to this day remain humbled by our mother’s magnanimity toward protecting areas large and small, and working to support us in conservation projects close to our hearts, whether in Barrington or some far-flung place in the world. Thank you, Mom, for this gift of loving nature and the joy that comes with embracing the responsibility of protecting nature. There are many places, people, plants, and animals that are all better off because of your commitment to this cause. And, because of what you have taught us, we are confident and joyful in saying that there will surely be many more successful conservation projects in the generations to come!

Brook McDonald, The Conservation Foundation

I have known Betsy for many years, as she is involved in the local and regional conservation community. She and her siblings are very supportive of the work of The Conservation Foundation. It is always fun to work with people who are passionate, fun to be around, very intelligent, and down-to-earth. Betsy is all of these and a very generous person. My favorite experience with Betsy was paddling down the lower Fox River near Wedron. Together, we organized a canoe trip in 2016 with many of our mutual friends and stopped along the way and had a picnic along the river’s banks. Good food, good wine, and good company in a beautiful natural setting sort of summarizes Betsy to me.

David Nelson, President BACT

I have known Betsy for many years, but I have worked with her closely in the area of land preservation in the Barrington area. She is a champion of conservation!

As a board member of the Barrington Area Conservation Trust since 2003, she has spearheaded and helped us achieve the permanent legal protection of over 520 acres of high-quality, open space to date. Betsy and her husband, Jim, have personally donated conservation easements, both here in Barrington, as well as in her hometown of Wayne, Ill.

She was raised in a family that promoted conservation and a love of nature. It is not uncommon to see her running along country roads on any given morning. She loves to ride her horses, as well, and her respect for animals directed her to deep involvement in supporting the Brookfield Zoo and spreading the word about global conservation challenges.

What I love about Betsy is her passion and her no-nonsense approach to getting the job done. She has given so much to our community (and to a much broader conservation community) in time and treasure, and it has been my privilege to know her.

Carla and Dennis Schlemmer, Friends

It is a pleasure and an honor to write about our good friend Betsy Bramsen for Quintessential Barrington. We have known Betsy since we first moved to Barrington Hills in the late 1970s when she burst into our home with energy and enthusiasm you rarely see. That energy has been translated to the many causes she has supported over the years. We have watched her work passionately in helping start the Barrington Area Conservation Trust, and she has been instrumental in its growth and success, helping to preserve hundreds of acres of land in Barrington Hills and other numerous easements. She also is an outstanding advocate of the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society and has carried on the family tradition of supporting Hamill Children’s Zoo.

Betsy is not only a wonderful philanthropist, she fully appreciates the results of protecting our natural wonders. For more than 25 years, we have traveled with her to some of the most beautiful parts of the world. No matter how late the evening, she is up at the crack of dawn jogging or hiking the seashore, mountainside, or volcano. Her enthusiasm for conservation and life is unsurpassed.

Dr. Stuart D. Strahl, President, CZS

I am the President and CEO of Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo. Betsy Bramsen, and her family, have been involved with CZS since its founding in 1921. I became CEO of the Society in 2003, which was the same year that Betsy joined the Board of Trustees (taking her husband’s place on the board). We have worked very closely together ever since.

It’s a true delight to work with Betsy Bramsen! She understands exactly what Chicago Zoological Society needs to further our conservation efforts and our engagement with the communities we serve. She is always deliberate in her approach to her board work, providing me with guidance and, when necessary, the ‘tough love” every CEO finds valuable. Betsy inherited her father’s passion for wildlife and conservation and has passed it down as a family legacy. It’s a personal joy to collaborate with someone who is as focused on environmental issues as I am, and who is also a great adventurer. We often trade tales of our personal travels to wild places and share a deep passion for engaging people with animals, nature, and conservation. Bravo, Betsy, you are the best!

Nancie Kozel Tobison, Friend

I originally met Betsy through the Second Set Play reader Group. It has been my good fortune to be friends with her for more than 30 years. She is an incredible inspiration of what a woman with impact can do when she sets her mind to it.

Betsy is an amazing lady of grace, creativity, and energy. She can run a marathon and show up at a party in two-inch heels. She can offer to change an entire operation and then proceed to implement that change, and she does it all with a true spirit of “don’t mention it , I am happy to help”. Whatever she does, it is always beyond anyone’s expectations. Her tenacity and self-actualization may seem intimidating at first glance, but this is a lady who is a visionary with follow-through. I have encountered few people in my life with the positive energy of Betsy. Her generosity and support of countless community organizations, as well as the Chicago area and global efforts, has impacted thousands of lives. This is truly a lady who has made a difference with her life. She is a remarkable community treasure.

George Yapp, Friend

It has been my pleasure to call Betsy “friend” for over 25 years. Betsy is a very special person in our community who is generous with her talents, philanthropy, and special focus on open spaces, and land and animal preservation. She was instrumental in establishing of the Barrington Area Conservation Trust as one of its founding members and financial supporters. Her contributions to the betterment of the Barrington area are normally done without fanfare, yet are instrumental in providing funds and personal support across a large segment of organizations that make Barrington a unique place to live. Barrington is a better community because of Betsy’s involvement. She certainly is a Quintessential Barrington treasure.

Lisa Woolford, Executive Director, BACT

Conservation is in Betsy’s DNA. Quite literally. In the seven years I have known her, Betsy has always talked about the profound influence her parents Corky and Joan had on shaping her perspective about the environment and man’s responsibility to nurture and protect it. She cares deeply about nature and animals which is evidenced in her commitment to the Barrington Area Conservation Trust, the Brookfield Zoo, and several other conservation organizations.

I first met Betsy when I started working at the Barrington Area Conservation Trust in 2011. She and her husband, Jim, were founding members of BACT. Currently, she is a board member and also Chair of our Land Committee. Betsy knows Barrington and seems to have explored every nook and cranny of our community by horseback, by foot (as a runner), and even by boat. One annual highlight of my summer is to take Betsy and her grandkids out on our boat to explore the Fox River. She loves to see how land and water are interconnected—where the streams empty into the river that flows south and eventually connects with the Illinois River. Our professional relationship through the Conservation Trust crossed into friendship on our first summer boating tour. Not only does Betsy know and care about conservation—spending time with her is a whole lot of fun!

Betsy has worked tirelessly to increase the pace of land preservation here in Illinois. As a founding member of the Conservation Trust, she has supported our organization and helped us preserve 520 acres of open space to-date. She walks the talk. She and Jim have personally donated conservation easements in Barrington, as well as in her hometown of Wayne, Ill.

On a personal level, Betsy has been my friend, advocate, and teacher. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to experience her in so many different roles. On a professional level, on behalf of the BACT conservation community, we are so thankful for all her efforts and applaud her energy. She has, without doubt, been a leader in protecting the lush countryside and open space that makes our community unique.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.