As friends and relatives shared memories of Betty Jo Golden at a celebration of her life recently, it struck me that, in spite of her life’s challenges, Betty Jo — or “Goldie” as most of us knew her — had as bountiful a life as any of us can hope for, filled with learning, joy, and, most of all, love, during her 77 years.
Betty Jo came to Devereux Santa Barbara at age 14 in 1946, the year after Helena Devereux, visionary pioneer in special education, opened her first program outside Pennsylvania for individuals with developmental disabilities.
Although Goldie’s family remained very involved and supportive throughout her entire life, Devereux quickly became her true home, the place where Betty Jo was most comfortable and always surrounded by her friends, other members of the Devereux family.
As her great-nephew Tim Howard said during the celebration, “Just as my three young children — the fifth generation of our family — have begun to grow up as part of the Devereux family, I had the privilege from early on to be part of this very special group of people. We learned more from Betty Jo and the other residents here than one could ever imagine.”
Until her passing on the last day of 2009, Goldie had been the campus “historian,” regaling us with stories of Miss Devereux, whom she knew personally. She often reminisced about the parties and holiday celebrations and all the changes that had taken place over the years.
Among other lively memories that Diane Howard shared about her aunt Betty Jo, she said, “She truly possessed the “shopping gene” — that gene that I’ve inherited and now Tim’s young daughters have!” Staff member Lisa Manelli confirmed it, saying, “A shopping trip was the best outing for Betty Jo . . . She absolutely loved to shop! Goldie was so in her element in the department store, checking out all the new fashions, that she would spin her wheelchair from one rack to the next, nearly getting lost among the clothes. As I tried to keep up with her, I heard this little voice call out from under a rack, ‘Isn’t this blue dress just lovely?!’” Always aware of how well people were dressed (or not), a slightly miffed Goldie once asked a staff member whom she saw on a “casual-dress” Friday, “When are you going to dress nice again?!”
Almost as much as shopping, Goldie enjoyed music and singing; getting mail; going to the hairdresser; and phoning, visiting, and writing to former Devereux staff members who had worked with her. Her address book was filled with lifelong friends she had cultivated. She was very social and had a great memory for details about everything.
Taking the love of chocolate and dessert to new heights of indulgence, Betty Jo could be heard asking (six months in advance of the date!), “What will they be serving for dessert at Family Day?” Yes, and Goldie loved her dining-out opportunities as long as they included dessert.
An articulate individual, Betty Jo liked to show off her large vocabulary. According to her nephew Greg Nickerson, who shared prayers and stories at the celebration, “When I was a teenager visiting with Aunt Betty Jo, she actually said to me, ‘Greg, you’re being obstreperous!’”
Living the majority of her life at Devereux provided Goldie with a place to grow and make friends. It allowed her to have meaning and purpose in her life, while giving meaning and purpose to those who supported her on a daily basis.
More than 50 family members and friends gathered together on a rainy day early this year to share memories of Goldie, celebrate her, and give testimony to the fullness of her life. They laughed and they cried as they saw themselves in the photo-video montage that represented Goldie’s 64 years at Devereux. Betty Jo was accorded the dignity and respect that every human being deserves, both in her life and in her passing. She will most certainly be missed by all of us. She is one of the last true “pioneers” who were integral to Devereux’s beginnings here on the West Coast.
Although the Weisman program on the Devereux campus where Betty Jo lived is still a haven for elderly folks with special needs, the majority of the individuals now served by Devereux live in their own homes and apartments, with Supported Living Services, in communities throughout Santa Barbara County.
Betty Jo is just one fine example of the thousands of men and women whom Devereux has helped along the same path, to living a good quality of life while reaching their individual potential and living as independently as possible. Her thoughtful nephew Greg said, “It’s wonderful to know that Betty Jo enjoyed such a rich life here, but I think that the reason we were given Betty Jo was to make us all better people.”