Sadly, the entertainment industry lost a 5’ 4” legend Dec. 31 when it said goodbye to Betty White. But with a career lasting eight decades, much of her work is preserved and will continue to keep her memory alive every time we see her as Sue Ann Nivens, Rose Nylund, Elka Ostrovsky or any of the other roles for which she won numerous awards.
It’s interesting that memories of people who are gone can come back so clearly, sometimes prompted by photos or a certain scent or even a name.
The announcement of Betty White’s death took me back many years ago when I met her on a sunny spring afternoon in Los Angeles. Through a friend, I was invited to sit in a corner of the NBC studio makeup room where guests for the Tonight Show would come before making an appearance on camera. I had to promise to be unobtrusive while they were there. It was fascinating and I was very starstruck. I watched as Johnny Carson arrived, keyed up, twitchy and intimidating. Ed McMahon had a booming voice and an equally booming laugh.
One by one, other celebrity guests arrived and each took their turn, totally absorbed with his or her face in the mirror, discussing the shade of pink or peach or whatever makeup they wanted.
I can’t remember who they were because my memory of Betty White from that day is so strong.
She was the last person to have her makeup done. She smiled and we said a brief “hello” and then she sat down and let the stylist begin. They were soon talking and laughing. At that time, she had already won six Emmy awards although many more were to follow.
A few minutes later through the open door I could see a janitor in gray coveralls quietly working his way along the hallway with a push broom. When Betty saw him, she got up from the chair and walked over to the door and greeted him by name. She leaned against the doorjamb and the two of them talked like old friends.
Betty asked him about family members, mentioning his wife and his two children. His oldest was in college and she not only knew his son’s name, but where he went to school and what he was studying. It was obvious from the conversation that they had been friends for some time. Each was glad to see the other and they talked for quite a while sharing small details and catching up.
In that brief moment watching the exchange between them I learned more about who Betty White was as a person than any television camera or award could convey.
I’ve enjoyed her work since then, but when I hear her name, I am immediately taken back to that makeup room, Betty leaning against the side of the door, chatting with a gentleman holding a push broom in the hallway. And while her list of accomplishments is long, the most impressive thing about her is that memory.
So thank you, Betty, for the lesson that day.
Fame is great. But if you want to leave a lasting memory, simple human kindness beats it every time.