I have a mental list of people that I will hate to see depart this life. Not family members or friends; they’re just a given. My list is composed of celebrities who, for a variety of reasons, occupy or have occupied a special place in my heart. Gene Wilder was on that list. So were Bob Newhart and Tim Conway and Madeline Kahn and Mary Tyler Moore. Dick Van Dyke is still on that list. So is Carol Burnett. And until December 31st, so was Betty White.
With impeccable comedic timing and the ability to say the most ridiculous things with the straightest face and the most innocent expression, she became a fixture in that staple known as the American sitcom. Right about here is where I thought I would begin recounting her many achievements—until I realized how many achievements there were. But when you live to be 99, and you start at the age of 17 or 18 (or 8, according to some sources), you have a lot of time to work on that. Over those years, she was recognized as a master of her craft but, more importantly, she was recognized as a good human being.
For example, at the beginning of World War II she put her career on hold and joined the American Women’s Voluntary Services, driving a PX truck loaded with military supplies to the Hollywood Hills, and entertaining troops before they were shipped overseas. In 1952 she began hosting The Betty White Show on NBC. With full creative control (something that was exceedingly rare for a woman in those days), she was able to hire whom she pleased, and one of those hires was a Black tap dancer named Arthur Duncan. Some of the more conservative television stations had a problem with that and demanded Duncan be fired . . . to which White replied, “I’m sorry. Live with it.” And increased Duncan’s air time. Her acceptance of all people led her to observe later “I don’t know how people can get so anti-something. Mind your own business, take care of your affairs, and don’t worry about other people so much.” It seemed you could always depend on her to be forthright and honest and blunt, but in such a way that no one was offended . . . maybe. If they were, I’m not sure she worried too much about it.
She had a particular fondness for animals—all animals—and in my considered opinion (which isn’t worth much), that says a great deal about a person. It was a love that was fostered in the early 1970s by her time on The Pet Set where she featured celebrities . . . and naturally, their pets. Working with, and often leading, numerous organizations—and putting her money into various efforts—she made a huge impact in the area of animal welfare.
Her popularity was unquestioned and she knew how much her fans loved her, but in spite of this knowledge, she managed to remain humble and down to earth. She was so loved that, at the age of 88, she was invited to host Saturday Night Live as the result of a Facebook campaign entitled “Betty White to Host SNL (Please)”. At the beginning of the show, as she started her opening monologue, she thanked the almost 500,000 group members who had made the gig possible, observing that up until that point she “didn’t know what Facebook was, and now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time.” The evening won her the 2010 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series and made her more of a legend than she already was.
Given the prevalence of information that is currently being published about Betty, compliments of her unexpected demise, I’ve been able to read a great deal about her life. Isn’t that how it so often is? We know very little about who someone really is until they’re only here in spirit, and then their lives become an open book. And when you’re someone famous, that’s usually followed by a for-real book, if one or two or ten haven’t already been published. The recurring theme seems to be that she did things her way, with integrity and humor but often shedding the mantel of dignity for the sake of her art. She was loyal to those she loved, tenacious in her pursuits, passionate about those causes to which she dedicated herself, and grateful for the life she was able to live. None of which you might have realized based on the public person she allowed us to see . . . the one who had no problem laughing at the world or at herself.
On December 31st, as if to thumb her nose at everyone who was preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her birth . . . and at the year 2021 . . . she slipped away quietly on the very last day of an already somewhat sucky year . . . 18 days before she would have joined that elite group of people who manage to survive for an entire century. A ginormous celebration had been planned, complete with magazine covers and television specials and guest appearances by a whole host of famous folks—and none of that mattered to Death. Betty White had been blessed with a long and productive life, with a mind and body that functioned up until the very last minute, and an exit for which many of us can only hope—an exit that has led to the rumor mill churning out all kinds of tales, about which Betty’s assistant Kiersten Mikelas observed:
“I’ve been reading a lot of the media coverage, and people seem really fixated on speculating about the way Betty died. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people put that much time into focusing on how she LIVED and, moreover incorporating a little of her philosophy into their OWN lives??? Be kind. Be kind to another person, to another animal, to the planet. THAT is the BEST way to honor Betty White. Certainly, the legacy of a life well-lived is worth more attention than the moments before that life ended.”
Betty White—comedian extraordinaire, consummate professional, entertainment icon, and all-round decent person. The only negative thing I’ve been able to find printed about her life was that, at the ripe old age of 99, she died too soon. What an amazing commentary.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.