(From left to right: Jan, Betty, my mother Ellen, and Ollie. Missing is Franny, who died in the early ‘80s.)
The five were classmates (1937) and friends at Wilson College, a small Presbyterian women’s school in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. They didn’t travel far from home to get there and they didn’t scatter very far — Pennsylvania and New York — when they left. They married, had kids, and built the family-centered, but socially engaged and intellectually active, lives that were normal for bright, well-educated women of their generation.
Normal, yes, but special for the close, lifelong friendship that this band of self-proclaimed Old College Chums maintained and the close family ties their friendship built.
Even more extraordinary, the four who remained after Franny’s death all made it past their 95th birthdays. What are the odds? Maybe a little, but not a lot, better than the Cubs winning the World Series. What deranged actuary would ever have predicted such lifespans (or, if so, stayed employed)?
When Betty died this week at the age of 96, the Old College Chums were reduced by 25% in absolute numbers, and a bit more on the LEO (Lifetime Energy Output) scale. Betty was an original; as my Dad liked to say, a charger. Extroverted is too pale to describe someone for whom two was company, three an audience. Funny? Imagine an only slightly lower wattage, female Zero Mostel.
Decades ago, when Betty, in her fifties, became a central-Pennsylvania radio personality, my mother wrote a short piece that captures how much she gave to others and how much she drew from them, here in a couple lightly edited excerpts:
Wilson’s class of ’37 had, in Betty, an original and agile wit. Her frequent and unpredictable comments during lectures and labs illuminated those sometimes tedious hours for her classmates and often got her into trouble. Her humor was directed at oddities of behavior and circumstance and was sparked by the ludicrous, wherever it occurred.
Even the normally reticent respond to the warmth of her interest with unaccustomed volubility. Strangers often part from her feeling as though they have known her for years, having unburdened themselves of as much of their life stories as time permitted. One time, at a restaurant in Madrid, her traveling companions were amazed to realize that, in all but physical presence, she was dining with the strangers at the adjacent table.
We, the younger generation, will remember Betty best from gatherings at the Grouse Club, in Barbours PA, a modest hunting/fishing club that was home base for side-yard touch football and wiffleball, dangerous experiments with low-tech explosives, endless bridge games, perilously close harmony, and Betty.
Words can’t recapture the hilarity of Betty’s monologue on getting peanut-butter off the roof of your mouth. Nor will YouTube have clips of her lending her strong alto to In the Evening by the Moonlight or the Doxology that solemnly ushered in a most unsolemn dinner. You had to be there. Thankfully, we were.
Betty is gone. We will console ourselves with her memory and tell our mothers that they are now the three Old College Chums. They may not all comprehend that bare fact. But, if we could re-enact the peanut-butter routine or hum a few bars of In the Evening, I know we would reach beneath mere memory, to the laughter and sentiment that Betty touched so naturally.