White as Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

I answered the phone on New Year’s Eve in my usual cheerful tone and was greeted with a heavy sigh.

“You haven’t heard yet,” said Lourdes Nicholls, my friend, and Growing Community Media colleague. “Betty White just died.”

Betty White (Alan Light, CC BY 2.0)

Just two days earlier I had been sitting across from Cindy Fee inside the Boulevard Studio at Crossfunction flexible workspace, 1033 South Blvd. Microphones separated us, but I made direct eye contact with her as she sang, “Thank You for Being a Friend” — the song she recorded in the mid-eighties as a theme for an unknown sitcom. 

Of course, the song went on to introduce The Golden Girls.

The Golden Girls premiered Sept. 14, 1985, when White was just 63 years old. Seven seasons, 180 episodes and now 37 years later, the show remains synonymous with the bonds of friendship between women.  Anyone familiar with The Golden Girls can quickly conjure an image of White as Rose Nylund — the big-hearted, slightly dimwitted, wickedly competitive, herring-loving Minnesotan who was pals with fellow elders: Dorothy, Blanche and Sophia.

My mom, Trish, started watching The Golden Girls in the 80s and grew to appreciate the show so much that she watched it almost daily when it went into reruns. In fact, my brother and I used to tease her because she talked about that lanai-lounging quartet like they were her real friends. She would often comment that Rose Nylund reminded her of her own mother — both in appearance and demeanor. My maternal grandmother, Dorothy, was one of my favorite people and I can attest to the fact that she looked and dressed a lot like Rose Nylund and shared all her best traits — she was much more than “terminally naïve.”

The show was on a fairly continuous loop in the house while I was growing up and White and the rest of the cast unwittingly became some of my most consistent companions. To this day, I can name the plot of any episode within moments of its start. And so can my son. I folded laundry in the late afternoon when he was little and much like my mother, I would put on reruns of The Golden Girls while I completed the task. My son is grown now and has a soft spot for Rose and girls, too. 

White was born at Oak Park’s West Suburban Hospital on Jan. 17, 1922 and brought home to an apartment on Pleasant Street. A trailblazer, she spent more than 75 years in the entertainment industry and  was the first woman to produce a sitcom in the United States. Premiering in 1952, Life with Elizabeth, centered on a newly married couple and featured White as both producer and star. 

She went on to be known as the “First Lady of Game Shows” making regular appearances on Password, Match Game, To Tell the Truth and Hollywood Squares among others. In addition to her role on Golden Girls, White famously portrayed Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland. She even earned an Emmy nomination for hosting Saturday Night Live in 2010 and proved to be a tireless advocate for animals throughout her life.

White managed to harness the love of the nation earning top honors in a 2017 Reuters/Ipsos poll seeking to identify the most trustworthy celebrity in America. She beat out Oprah and Tom Hanks. Though she only spent her babyhood in Oak Park, it is no surprise Betty White remains a claim to fame in our community. 

Lourdes’ came up with the idea to celebrate what would have been White’s 100th birthday over a year ago. While White’s resume is clearly comprised of much more than her role on the Golden Girls, Lourdes invited me to participate in the festivities simply because I lost control and blurted out my love for White and the Golden Girls. 

As a result, my days leading up to and immediately following White’s death on Dec. 31 were filled with uncanny conversations with people both directly and indirectly affiliated with White. My private Cindy Fee concert was followed by  phone calls with George Geary, Golden Girls cheesecake creator, and Kelly Schumann, former Wednesday Journal employee turned television star who appeared with White on Hot in Cleveland. They all had wonderful stories to share.

What started out as a birthday party has morphed into a community wide celebration of the life and legacy of the one and only Betty White. To say the least, local and national response to this effort has been surprising; I am clearly not alone in my love for Betty White.

The news that White had died was bittersweet. Sure, there was a part of me that, like Rose Nylund, “felt like crawling under the covers and eating Velveeta right out of the box,” but the better part of me remembered what White said in a 2011 interview: 

“There’s no formula. Keep busy with your work and your life. You can’t become a professional mourner. It doesn’t help you or others. Keep the person in your heart all the time. Replay the good times. Be grateful for the years you had.”

So, I skipped the cheese eating, put on a few episodes of the Golden Girls and laughed. I remembered my grandma, called my mom and thought about ways I could be a little more like Betty — one of my favorite girls. 

Enjoy this Betty White Centennial Celebration.

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