BETTY LEE KENNEDY
Interviewed May 4, 2020. Interview was edited for clarity and length.
Betty Lee, 89, has been a PRUMC member for 65 years. One of the first staff members at Sara Smith Elementary, where she taught for six years, she is a widow and mother of three (Dan & Kathleen, also PRUMC members, and Katie, who lives in Texas, where her husband is a minister).
What has this time of pandemic and isolation been like for you? How would you compare it to other times of difficulty you’ve faced in your life?
My doctor advised me on March 13 that I should stay in, with just my son and daughter who live with me and are my caregivers. I’m pretty peaceful about it. I haven’t been able to go to church and see my friends, which is most of my social activity. But I’ve been able to stay connected with the church through Zoom. This has been totally different, but I have been so enriched by the ways the church has expanded with Zoom for Sunday School, classes and prayers. And also the livestream. I haven’t missed a one.
I’ve been thinking about different things I’ve been through in my life, and I think that this does not frighten me as much as polio did. The polio epidemic went on from when I was in elementary school, on into my adulthood. We couldn’t ever go swimming in summertime because they thought it might be spread that way [polio came and went for decades, with the U.S. having its worst outbreak in the 1940s through the 1950s and children staying indoors during summers]. It really frightened me that it affected the respiratory system and put people into the iron lung. Newsreels showed people in those iron lungs, and I thought how frightening it would be to not be able to move. Then, in my first year of teaching school, I had a friend, another teacher about my age, who contracted polio from her class, and she never was able to walk again. She got it right before the vaccine finally came out.
I was just 12 when World War II started, and I was 13 when my dad was called into service. Someone told him he might have a basis for exemption, but he said, “No, everyone else is going, and I need to go too.” He went into the Navy, and I didn’t see him for years. I missed my dad, but my mother was very calm and steady.
We moved close to my grandparents during the war, as they didn’t want us to be far away from them. My dad’s two brothers were also in the service. Grandfathers became the men in our lives back then. One uncle was in the Air Force, and he flew 25 missions over Germany. My dad’s next brother was in the Navy on a ship, and they took supplies back and forth from New York to Europe, dodging mines and submarines. My dad was off the coast of California, on a boat patrolling to make sure there were no Japanese submarines to attack the coast. They all came home, by the way. My family always said that my dad and his brothers came home because my grandmother prayed them home. Compared to that, this situation is not as frightening.
People during the war were very much supportive of the war effort. Food was rationed. Gas was rationed. My grandparents planted a victory garden, and they canned vegetables. Somebody said the ration was one egg a week per person, but we were lucky because we had chickens! I didn’t hear people complaining. They just thought it was what they had to do for the war effort. One thing I did was collect tin foil from the middle of cigarette packages (a lot of people smoked back then) and donate that to the war effort, because they used every kind of metal for weapons. My mother knitted sweaters for children in England who were displaced from London during bombing.
I really think this instant news all the time frightens people more. Back then, we listened to the radio news report at noon and one in the evening. That was all of the news we had, except for newsreels you saw at the movies, and those were more than a week old. Someone I heard recently listed things to do to get through this pandemic, and one thing was to limit your news intake. So now, we watch a little news around 6:00 and then again late in the evening. But we don’t watch constantly.
You mentioned taking advantage of Zoom to stay connected with PRUMC, and you’re very active on the church’s Facebook page. What’s given you such an openness to technology?
I am anxious to learn new things. I’m not afraid to admit starting out that I can’t do something. The more things I try, the more I enjoy things and the more I can be in touch with people and make friends. My parents were pretty open to trying new things. My grandparents were from families who were pioneers in Florida, and they were always open and curious about new things. Maybe I just kind of caught it from them. My grandmother’s parents went to central Florida on the railroad as far as the train went. When the train stopped, they got out and found a place to homestead. My grandmother told me that she was born in a log cabin, and my grandfather told me about an Indian war with the Seminoles. You just don’t think about Florida being part of the Wild West! They had to be adventurous to survive. The older I get, the more I like to share and think about their stories.
Do you have any advice for us from the perspective of looking across all of these events in your life?
My daughter works now at Publix, so she’s out with people almost every day. And she says she sees the best of people and the worst of people. Some are very understanding about limits on items and such things, and others are angry. I think that we have the possibility of coming out on the other side of this as a more thoughtful, maybe slower society that takes time to appreciate family. A lot of people are learning that busy-ness is not always the best thing. There’s a lot of peace in getting a little bit of quiet. I hope that we’ll be more thoughtful of other people. It seems with many crises I have had in my life that in the end, something good comes out of it. Not the crisis itself, but something good can come from the crisis. I hope we’ll be a kinder, gentler society than we were before.
It’s a little bit lonesome that I can’t physically see my friends. But I’m not afraid of the virus. I’m being as cautious as I can without being paranoid about it. We all have to deal with this, and we might as well learn to take it in stride and just be as calm about it as we can. I know that God will use this for a good purpose, and I hope that we’ll be more aware of the fact that we’re guardians of the earth and try not to exploit it so much. We’ve been a throwaway society and cluttered everything up, and we need to be conscious that we’re all interconnected.
Update: Betty Lee successfully came away from an unexpected hospital stay during the virus. She fell and hit her head in early May, days after our interview (the issue turned out to be her sodium level). Luckily, nothing was broken (“I hit the thing least likely to break!” she laughed). She’s back home and doing in-home physical therapy to regain her strength.