Laurel resident Betty Baker, who retired in 1995 from her job as office manager at the Laurel Leader, died July 11, just shy of her 78th birthday. Like so many others in our humble hamlet whose world she colored, I was stunned and saddened. How could such a blowtorch of a personality pass from the scene? If anyone had the guts to stare down what awaits us all, surely it was Betty.
Betty wore many hats: Doting wife of Tommy, mother of Timmy, grandma of Matt and Erin, organizer extraordinaire, raconteur, drill sergeant, barrel of fun. She had this contagious laugh loud enough to shatter the neon coils on the Red, Hot and Blue sign. "A force of nature," the Rev. Warren Litchfield, one of her cousins, declared at her memorial service July 14 at Donaldson Funeral Home. He told the gathering that whenever he would drop off a news item from the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, Betty would take over. Warren quoted scripture, comparing Betty to the "virtuous woman" in the Book of Proverbs. "With Betty, what you saw was what you got. She never pulled any punches."
My first date as a married man was with Betty. It was on a Wednesday and "Jurassic Park" had just opened. At the theater, we got popcorn and sat near the front. When it came to seeing innocent dinosaurs running wild on the silver screen, Betty was reduced to a bowl of cream of wheat. During one really scary scene, I felt her long fingernails digging into my skin. So much for the nail spittin', my-way-or-the-highway shell. Betty? Petrified of a couple of frisky raptors at recess? Who would've thought?
Nobody got past Betty — and lived to tell about it. She was The Great and Powerful Oz of the Leader staff, but she never hid behind some curtain and twisted the dials.
Frequently, when the heart was willing but the flesh was so weak, I would phone in "sick." But Betty had my number.
"Morning, Betty. I'm under the weather. Think I'll take the day off."
"You're not sick," she'd fire back above the din of the ringing phones in the background. "I know you. Get in here!"
Pete Kerzel, who was a longtime Leader sports editor, packs a trove of Betty tales. He shared a few that really showcased her essence. On his first day at the paper, Pete said Betty showed him around the place. "She said, 'If you need anything, you come to me.' "
Instantly, Pete was comforted by Betty's kind introduction. He also noticed that he was the only male in the office. That meant only one thing: having exclusive access to one of the bathrooms. "Betty showed me the bathroom and said, 'We all use this. Don't think you're something special.' That was perfectly OK by Pete, except for the fact that in this loosely defined unisex environment, the sign on the door read "Men."
The last one from Pete is one which all writers should live by. There was a sure-fire, air-tight force in the newsroom that became known as "The Betty Test." If a writer or editor had a question about a story, "if we weren't sure someone wouldn't understand, we'd give it to Betty," Pete remembered, smiling. "We'd say, 'Betty, read this.' If Betty didn't understand it, it'd have to be rewritten. She was the salt of the earth."
In Betty, Laurel has lost one more treasured storybook character. She's safe in heaven now, gathered round a festive table that includes her beloved husband and her parents. And you can wager every neon light at every Red, Hot and Blue that she remains that "force of nature." Frankly, I gotta wonder: Exactly who's running the show up there?