Lourdes Nicholls, the force behind the Journal’s Betty White celebration, in our offices with Betty White cutouts. | Javier Govea/Staff

When Growing Community Media’s Wednesday Journal set out to host a community get-together to celebrate Betty White’s centennial birthday this month, no one quite expected the level of interest the event would draw outside Oak Park, where the star was born. The universe, however, has a fickle way of intervening.

As news spread of White’s death on Dec. 31, Oak Park and Growing Community Media were thrust into the limelight and the event itself became something of a media sensation.

“I am so surprised by the media attention,” said Lourdes Nicholls, GCM senior media strategist. “Things have been really crazy.”

Now a celebration of White’s life and its start in Oak Park, the event has attracted the attention of news outlets as far away as the United Kingdom. Several news crews have made plans to cover the 30-minute celebration, scheduled for 10 a.m., Jan. 15 under the marquee at Classic Cinemas Lake Theatre, 1022 Lake St.

“When we were planning a celebration of her 100th birthday, we had no idea that her passing would impact this event in such monumental ways,” said Oak Park Eats Editor Melissa Elsmo. Elsmo worked with Nicholls to make the event happen, as well as writing multiple stories for today’s Wednesday Journal’s Be Like Betty special section.

 Nicholls, who first pitched the birthday party idea, has found herself overwhelmed with calls from news outlets.

“CBS, ABC, NBC, The New York Daily News, Newsday,” she listed. “I’ve been in touch with the U.K. for the United Kingdom Press Association.”

Those involved with the event never doubted the extent to which people loved White, who was known as much for her kindness as she was for her comedic presence. That in and of itself was enough to entice CBS2 Chicago reporter Marissa Parra to do a story about the memorial event last week.

“It’s an excuse to celebrate a woman who touched so many lives,” said Parra. “As a journalist, I was intrigued by that.”

And even though White didn’t live in Oak Park for a substantial amount of time, Parra thinks her association to the village offers some joy for people in the Chicago area. Joy has been hard to come by of late, considering the world has entered into the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The fact that she spent any time here at all just makes people excited they have some connection to Betty,” said Parra.

Parra believes the fond recollections of White’s consummate goodness serve as an opportunity for us all to emulate the qualities for which the actress was adored in our own lives.

That would seem to be the case, as many people and businesses are volunteering their time and services for the Jan. 15 event in Oak Park. Turano Baking Company is providing birthday cake for the attendees. The Animal Care League is hosting a pet adoption event after the celebration in the lobby of Byline Bank, across from Lake Theatre – a nod to White’s well-documented love for animals.

For all the positive press Oak Park has received as a result of the media’s interest in White’s celebration of life, some inaccuracies have popped up in coverage of the event. Primarily, that the village of Oak Park is proclaiming the actress’s Jan. 17 birthday as “Betty White Day.” That is not the case. 

While Village President Vicki Scaman is reading a proclamation recognizing White at the Jan. 10 village board meeting and then again at the Jan. 15 Journal event, the proclamation does not establish White’s birthday as “Betty White Day.”

Likewise, event organizers were cognizant that White’s actual birthday falls on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year. It was decided from the start that the event honoring White would be held Jan. 15, so that it would in no way conflict with the federal holiday commemorating the civil rights leader.

“We were planning this event before Betty White died,” said Elsmo. “It was always going to be on Jan. 15 because we didn’t want it detract from the importance of Martin Luther King Day.”

The village president will also be reading a proclamation Jan. 10 declaring the village of Oak Park will observe of King’s birthday Jan. 17. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is always observed the third Monday of January.

The sentiment behind the celebration has remained the same from the start.

“It’s a moment to express our gratitude for what Betty White was emblematic of in this country: kindness, compassion and connection,” said Elsmo.

Lourdes’ TV appearances:

Oak Park’s Betty White Centennial Celebration has garnered quite a bit of media attention regionally and around the country. Fielding all the calls from reporters has been the job of event co-organizer, Lourdes Nicholls. Here are some links to her television appearances.

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