I met with Betsy at her home on Vista Ranch behind the Breggo Cellars Winery a week or so ago and we sat down to talk.
She was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the hospital where her mother, Rosemary Fleming, was a registered nurse. At the time, her father, Boyd Bell, was with the U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima. Both sides of her family were of Scottish/Irish/German descent that had been in the States for many generations (the paternal side since before the War of Independence) and were keen members of the Presbyterian Church. Her parents had met when at Penn State University where both were in the choir. “My parents were both musically inclined — my mother was a piano player and my father a very good tenor who perhaps could have been a professional singer but decided he didn’t want to make a living with his voice, preferring to be a farmer instead.”
Betsy was the oldest of four with two younger brothers, Raymond and Tom, and a younger sister, Marily. The family grew up near to Penn State University in the borough of State College, PA, and her father worked for Eastern States Fertilizer and Pesticides while Betsy’s Mom did some nursing in between raising the four children. “When I was two, my parents had lost a baby who was 8-months old. That was very hard on them and the Church was very helpful to them through those times. So much so that they decided they wanted to become missionaries. My Dad was not satisfied with his job and so grabbed the chance when offered a job in the Philippines as a missionary and teacher of agriculture at a university. They were not holy-rollers up until that point although religion and our church was certainly important to them and they had all the Christian values. So when I was three we moved and Dad started his job at Silliman University on one of the Philippine islands and Mom worked there too, as a nurse. It was the beginning of many years of great happiness for us all and I was there until I turned 13, apart from one year spent back in the States.”
In 1954, the family, now with three more children who were born abroad, returned to the States for a year in which Betsy attended 4th grade in State College. “I have very good memories of that time. I got to see snow for the first time, television too. My parents got the refresher they needed and spent the time visiting churches and speaking about their experiences in the Philippines. After a year, we returned to the Far East to Dumaguete, a good-sized city, and I went to the school there that was part of the college there. (Coincidentally, a couple of years ago we had a student at the high school in the Valley called Orianne McEwen who was from Dumaguete). Most teachers at the college sent their kids to the International school so I was the only white kid in my school... It was a very lush and beautiful place to live and the people were so warm and gracious. My-pre-teen years were idyllic — I had many good friends, enjoyed school, swam in the ocean, and played on the beach. I understood the local dialect but couldn’t speak it. I spoke English with a Philippine accent and was certainly an outsider who was accepted. As a result of this experience, I feel I can relate to the kids at our school here who have moved here from Mexico. We Americans were appreciated at the time but eventually it was time to let them control their own country and it was time to leave.”
In 1959, when Betsy was 13, her mother became unwell and the family decided it was best to return to the States and so they came back to Pennsylvania. “We moved in with my grandparents and I was in shock as I entered 9th grade. I knew very little about western ways and of how to be a teenager in the States. I was lonely and missed my friends. I remember with great clarity when I realized for the first time what prejudice was about. I was looking at photos of my friends in the Philippines and I saw them in a different way for the first time — they were dark-skinned and different. This is how my new friends in the States would see them and I had never thought about them in that way. They were just my friends. I cried. I missed them; they were not part of my world now.”
Betsy made some new friends but after a year the family moved again. Her father felt the church had helped the family so much that he wanted to be a lay-preacher for them. He was offered a position at a church on an Indian Reservation in Arizona — The Mojave Presbyterian Church in the town of Parker. “We moved to the reservation and I went to Parker High School — it was 115 degrees on my first day. My father changed the name of the church to Parker Valley Unified Presbyterian Church to attract a larger and broader congregation and he was quite successful. He endeared himself to the Native Americans by accepting some of their own religious practices and he eventually earned their respect. They were wonderful people with a great sense of humor and theirs was a culture I got to enjoy and respect. My mother worked full-time at the Indian hospital. My parents were strict about homework but we had a fair allowance and I worked in a job at a drugstore that served burgers and coffee etc for extra money. They were very supportive and wanted us kids to strive for what we wanted to do — to figure that out and go for it. That was the way this country was in the 50s and early 60s. Also, for the first time, I began to enjoy school. I really started to study seriously and was soon getting all As. I had never thought of myself as an intelligent person before that. I earned a reputation as a good student and was Valedictorian of my class. I enjoyed Math and Science. I didn’t enjoy English yet now I teach it! It was a small school, just a little bigger than Anderson Valley, and music soon became my favorite subject. I had been singing since I was a small child. The whole family loved music and we’d sit around the piano and sing for fun. I sang solo through high school and also learned the violin and clarinet. I had been thinking about nursing as a career but received a voice scholarship to attend Arizona State and so after graduating in 1963 I went to Tempe, about three hours away, with music performance as my major.”
“In retrospect, a degree in music is not going to give anyone a good living although I would not change a thing about studying it and I really loved my years at college. As a freshman I discovered opera and had a tiny part in a one-act opera. I thought it was fantastic and really focused on it for the next couple of years. During one of those summers I had a scholarship to attend a music program studying voice and performance and worked with coaches for the first time. It was a significant move because in my junior year I had the lead role in ‘La Traviata’ at Arizona State.”
As she immersed herself in opera Betsy was quite oblivious to the political goings-on at the time. After her junior year, in August 1966, she was married to Everett Taylor a young man who was a year older from the same high school in Parker. He had attended the ROTC at Arizona State and was on his way to Vietnam in the fall of 1967 as a 2nd Lieutenant. However, there was some confusion with his paperwork and he was held back and sent for training to Baltimore before being transferred to The Presidio in San Francisco. Betsy left school before graduating and followed her husband. “So instead of having a young husband fighting in Vietnam, I had one working in the army in San Francisco and as a budding opera singer that was heaven to me. You had to be either there or New York to make a real career of it.”
Betsy found a job with the office of Housing and Urban Development and she and Everett lived in officers housing on the Presidio base. In the evenings, Betsy continued to be coached and her teacher, who was the music director at the Calvary Presbyterian Church in the City, hired her as the church soloist. Meanwhile, Everett was in the survivor assistance office which meant he had to help/support the bereaved families as they dealt with the loss of loved ones in the war. “We attended so many funerals. He knew every cemetery in the Bay Area, I think. He almost had a breakdown but he came through it and eventually got his doctorate in counseling psychology. That whole period was a real life lesson for us.”
Betsy and Everett left San Francisco in 1969 so that he could work on his masters at Arizona State where Betsy worked full-time as the secretary to the Dean of Social Work. She then finished her Bachelors degree and went on to get her Masters in Voice Performance and Pedagogy — so she could teach this subject. She then went on to perform two roles at The Oberlin Music Festival in Ohio in the summer of 1972 and a leading role for the Arizona Opera Company in Tuscon in the fall of 1973.
In 1974, Betsy auditioned in San Francisco for a Rockefeller Grant to receive further voice lessons. She got the grant and moved to New York to study, living in Connecticut where Everett became the director of the suicide hotline and Betsy commuted to her studies in New York. “I had a wonderful teacher and made great progress, being hired to sing in a couple of operas that summer in Des Monies, Iowa and also getting a leading role in ‘The Magic Flute’ for the Arizona Opera once again. We moved back to Tempe in the late fall of 1974 for Everett to get finish up his doctorate.”
Betsy was trying to get her career going on a more sound footing but over the next year it was increasingly hard to get hired regularly unless you were living in SF or New York. At that point Everett was basically saying either her career had to take off soon or the marriage was in trouble. They both agreed that Betsy needed to go to New York to achieve this, which she did, alone, in January 1976. “It was really scary for a few days but I did get to know a few other singers and then after three weeks I got a call from the Western Opera Company (the touring arm of the SF Opera) to perform a role I’d done in Arizona. I went to SF and had a great time. It was opera all day, every day; working with other young singers and touring with the company. That spring we went to Alaska on tour and that was the most incredible experience. We even got to sing for the guys working on the pipeline and all told we were there for six weeks or more through May. It was one of the highlights of my life.”
During these heady days, Betsy had fallen for a younger stagehand, Jim Allen, but when the tour was over she found work as the administrative assistant and stage director for an opera in Rochester, New York and then returned to New York City where she became quite miserable as the opera work dried up. To make things worse, in early 1977 when she re-applied (as you have to do every year) for a position in the company with which she had been on the Alaska tour etc, she did not get accepted. “My voice seemed to be affected by my being in New York. I foresaw myself getting a series of temporary jobs and walking the streets looking for work — and there was a soprano on every corner in New York! I returned to San Francisco, via Tempe where I realized that my husband and I could not get back together. I felt I’d changed and that the marriage was over for good. I really wanted it to work but a part of me had come alive and if I went back with Everett that part would die. In S.F., I moved in with the Jim and we were married. I got a series of secretarial jobs based on the typing I’d learned in high school and I then got a job at the same Calvary Presbyterian Church — this time as the secretary. I stayed there for several years and really became a part of the church community. I attended the services but more for the singing than the religion, although I was definitely a Christian at that point.”
Betsy found work with different local opera companies in the Bay Area such as Scala, The SF Spring Opera, and The West Bay Opera Company. She performed more and more concerts at the church, did more solos for the operas, and her career grew. In 1980 she performed ‘La Traviata’ with the West Bay Opera, then ‘La Boheme’ in Monterrey, and was pregnant when she was performing in SF that fall. However, complications arose with the pregnancy and she had to quit work some time before her son Justin was born in November of that year. She was contracted to perform in ‘La Boheme’ in March 1981 which she did while her mother watched Justin.
“That was an unsuccessful opera and I only got a trickle of work after that over the next few years. I was at home with Justin and Jim was gone a lot at that time with his work on various film sets and by 1985 our marriage was not going well. I was not brave enough to leave so he did. I was now a single Mom living in San Rafael, Marin. It got tougher and tougher and I basically fell apart. I was quite depressed for three years and didn’t really know how to support myself, my child, and the house. I’d never done it before.”
Eventually, with Justin attending the local Montessori School, Betsy healed herself through her involvement there and in getting more interested in child development. She still did a little singing but had no time for operas. By 1991 she had become the administrator of the school and had become very good friends with the teachers. She also became involved with environmental and political issues. “I guess I finally just got educated. It was a gift to me that Jim had left. I finally grew up. Christianity hadn’t helped and I turned to Buddhism for a time. After that, and ever since, I decided I was going to be in the Church of Divine Ignorance.”
One of her teacher friends, Bridget Graham, had grown up in the Valley and her mother was living on the Holmes Ranch sub-division. In 1993, along with Bridget and her partner Andrew Lehman, who lived on the Yorkville Ranch, Betsy bought property in Yorkville and moved up here, taking Justin out of school as he was going into 7th grade. “I wanted to do things to ‘save the planet’ and so my city-living skateboarding son had to now live on a hill in the country. He was not happy. I had visited the Valley before to see Bridget’s mother, Janet Seaforth, and gone to Hendy Woods, but I thought it was pretty isolated and that Lemons’ Market was the end of the world and where civilization began. There was nothing on the 160 acres and we lived in tents. By 1995 however I had a straw-bale house and had got to know a few people, such as our neighbor Fred Wooley. It took Justin quite a time to get used to his new school but gradually we both settled in and I became a substitute teacher at the Elementary and High School. I was really scared at first but discovered that I could do it, although I kept putting off getting my teaching credential.”
Betsy joined the Valley’s Community Chorus in 1994 and met many people through that over the next 13 years — friends such as Doug Read, Lauren Keating, Janet Anderson, Gail Meyer, Barbara Lamb, Robert Waring, and many others. Her first really close friend here was Patty Narrin, the mother of Nick Birch, who was friends with Justin at the school. “Eventually I found that I had a place I could call ‘home’ for the first time since I had lived in the Philippines about thirty five years before.”
For a year she worked for Jack Graves at the Life Works group home where she learned a lot but ultimately it was too tense and doing so many extra things such as cooking and driving was not what she wanted to do. Betsy finally decided to get her teaching credential and did so over a year at Dominican College in Marin County, during which time she was renting a room from Leslie Hummel who became her other very good best friend. “I thought that I had a lot to offer the kids. I had traveled a lot and done a variety of different jobs. Music was not the right thing for me to teach though. It requires too much high energy, field trips, competitions, etc. Plus it is not high on the school district’s priority list. I decided I’d teach English instead. I was very lucky to be a student teacher with Kim Campbell and David Rounds — two great teachers. And in 2000 I was hired to work at the Junior High School with Mary O’Brien who mentored me. I was really lucky to work with her too.”
That same year Betsy decided to sell her portion of the Yorkville property and bought just less than four acres on the Vista Ranch where she lives today. Her mother, Rosemary Bell, moved in with her and became a part of the community and Betsy got to meet a bunch of new people also. Sadly Rosemary died in 2005 but Betsy is very glad they had the time here together.
“I now teach English and reading at the junior high and also AVID — the course to prepare the juniors and seniors at the high school for college. I finally feel like I know how to do it. It’s a talent and a skill that can be developed. Teaching full-time meant I could no longer do the choir too so I left in 2007 but I had picked up the violin again and got hooked. I took lessons and now play with the Symphony of the Redwoods. I also play in a trio with pianist Pippa Thomas and a cellist from the coast — classical music has been brought back to life for me. I have done a couple of operas on the coast and still have hopes to do more someday. The teaching and my music consume me and take up most of my time and so this past summer when I played in the Mendocino Music Festival’s Orchestra it was so exciting for me. However, on the Friday before school began, just a month ago, I fell and broke my arm so I’ll not be playing for quite a while.”
Her son Justin graduated from nursing school last December and is employed in Travis City, Michigan as a Registered Nurse. He is a single Dad, co-parenting with the mother of Betsy’s grandson, Quincy, who she visits twice a year. She loves the Valley but does get pressure to move to Colorado where her brother and sister live. “As long as I can physically and financially afford to be here in Anderson Valley, I want to stay. I love the quiet here and that most people know me when I go to the store. I love my friends here and will meet up with them for a movie night at Leslie’s or occasionally some champagne with Mary O’Brien at Lauren’s.”
I asked my guest for her brief responses to some local issues.
The wineries and their impact. “Well they do provide jobs but I worry about the water and the monoculture that we have here now.”
The AVA? “I enjoy it and am very glad we have it. It’s a nice combination of things and it’s important we keep in touch with what’s going on in the community.”
The School System? “I think we have a pretty amazing school. I know how hard the teachers work and we are lucky to have the staff that are here. The class sizes are good, the numbers going to college are very good, and the dropout rate very low. We get to really know the kids and make sure they do not fall through the cracks. We’d love for all of them to go to a four-year college with scholarships and our community has given us great support on this. My biggest wish is for the Dream Act to pass so that undocumented kids can apply for aid, prove they are good students, and then have access to citizenship... I do worry about the music program. It needs more support and should have a better status, with people understanding that it can be good for your brain and your development. It can add so much fulfillment in life.”
To end the interview, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Betsy.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “A successful student in a class.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “If I feel unjustly criticized or judged, so I don’t like to do that to others.”
Sound or noise you love? “The wind blowing through the pine trees outside my house.”
Sound or noise you hate? “A whistle at an indoor sports game is painful to my ears.”
Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “The chicken tostado from Lauren’s Restaurant.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Mahatma Gandhi. My hero of the last century.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “My violin, the tapes of my singing, and as many of my photo albums as I could have.”
Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “I read a lot of natural health remedy books. My ‘bible’ is ‘Prescriptions for Nutritional Healing.’ As for a song, I just love the theme from the film ‘Cinema Paradiso’ — a violin solo with a piano accompaniment.”
A smell you really like? “The first rain after a hot summer.”
Favorite hobby? “Playing the violin.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “I would like to have been a natural healer.”
Profession would you not like to do? “A politician or lawyer. I do admire some lawyers but just cannot imagine myself being one.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “Touring with the Western Opera Company. Or when my son Justin called and told me he had passed his state licensing exam.”
Saddest day or period of your life? “When my mother died. I didn’t think it was time. She was 83 but she wasn’t ready to go.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “My patience.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “My first thought is I’d want him to say ‘Everything is going to be OK’ because I’m a worrier. My second thought is for him to say ‘You don’t have to do all that again.’ That’s because for many years it has been a real struggle and a push for me to accept being independent. Considering how afraid I am in some ways, I am actually a pretty courageous person considering what I have accomplished. I have been a late bloomer.” ¥¥
(If you would like to read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be former Valley realtor and continuing to be a talented potter, Doug Johnson.)