When Betty White died on Dec. 31, 2021, she was six minutes of the lead story on NBC Nightly News — and three minutes of the program’s last segment. Colorado wildfires, the Omicron variant, severe weather raging across the U.S. and cancellations of flights and New Year’s Eve celebrations could not upstage the time devoted to her legacy.
She had always been more than just a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame for most of us. But until she was gone, just 17 days shy of being 100, did we truly understand the truth she lived and left behind for us to embrace?
For many days after her death, the media paid tribute to her showbiz accomplishments. Her birth in Oak Park, Ill., to a mom and dad who fostered laughter became her steppingstone to radio, to TV game shows, to Life with Elizabeth and The Betty White Show, and to her memorable characters of Sue Ann Nivens on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose Nyland on The Golden Girls. The career that began in 1939, the seven Emmy wins and 20 nominations, and the 121 shows and movies she was involved in made her America’s beloved actress with the longest career ever in television. She was bawdy and edgy, but rounded out with humility and kindness.
Now that some time has passed, let’s take a non-celebrity look at her life and what it might mean to us who are not so well-known. We claimed ownership of her as a household name, so shouldn’t we claim ownership of her in death as a guiding spirit for our legacies? A little bit of Betty White could be a guiding spirit for our own legacies.
In the 1954 TV Radio Mirror article, Life with Betty, My Daughter Betty White, Tess White describes her daughter’s philosophy in five words: “I don’t believe in defeat.”
Tess writes Betty wanted to be a “big voice” after high school by becoming an opera singer. She studied music and trained with a coach, but Betty was stricken with strep throat and was bedridden for almost two months. It damaged the “big voice,” but it did not quiet her real voice.
“Everything I planned on is down the drain,” Betty had said. “It can’t get any worse — that means it has to get better.”
Getting better didn’t preclude other hard knocks along the way. Earning nothing, she appeared on a Joe Landis variety show when the other singers were no-shows, a rather serendipitous beginning.
But two unhappy marriages, a career hindered by racism and sexism, the loss of husband Allen Ludden to cancer and other close friends to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the deaths of many beloved pets didn’t dampen her voice.
What is the voice we are left with? What is the wisdom we should glean from a life well-lived with grace? Her mother first described Betty’s wisdom 68 years ago: “She’s just a regular girl. She’s learned from experience she’s never alone with her problems — other people have suffered before and won out, probably in the exact situations she found herself in… But she felt, inside of herself, that making people happy with entertainment was for her, and in this she had faith.”
Words of Wisdom
Her mother’s words were the precursor for Betty’s own words of wisdom she shared over the years.
- “It’s your outlook on life that counts. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, pretty soon you can find humor in our everyday lives. And sometimes it can be a lifesaver.”
- “You may not be as fast on your feet, and the image in your mirror may be a little disappointing. But if you are still functioning and not in pain, gratitude should be the name of the game.”
- “You don’t fall off the planet once you pass a given age. You don’t lose any of your sense of humor. You don’t lose any of your zest for life, or your lust for life.”
- “I just make it my business to get along with people so I can have fun. It’s that simple.”
Few of us may have known Betty White personally, but through the medium of TV we learned she cared for so many on earth. No one owns Betty White’s memory, but wouldn’t we be worthy if it owned us?