Betty Stein

Betty Stein has seen dramatic changes in her 97 years

Betty Stein, photography by Neal Bruns

Betty Stein, photography by Neal Bruns

Perhaps you only know Betty Stein from her newspaper columns featuring local book lovers. Or maybe she was your teacher, or your colleague, or your fellow board member. But if you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her, you should. She may be 97 years old this year, but she remains eternally young thanks to her love of learning and her inveterate interest in people. Take a time-traveling trip through Betty Stein’s prodigious brain as we play 20 Questions.

1. What’s your earliest memory?
It’s a horrible one. We were in Baltimore visiting family and one of my maiden aunts said of me, ‘Well, she may be lovely, but she’ll never be the looker her mother was.’

2. You were born in Fort Wayne in 1916. What brought your family to the city?
My father, Dr. B.M. Edlavitch, was offered a position in Fort Wayne as a pathologist. He and my mother Rena moved to Fort Wayne in the spring of 1913, just in time for the flood. My mother was one of the people going around in a boat (helping) people.

3. What is your secret ingredient?
For life? It’s like Emily Webb (the character) in ‘Our Town’ asks: Does anyone ever live every, every moment? Well, I sure as heck try.

4. What’s the best part about being 97?
Just being there. Making it and still being able to think.

5. How has education changed since you began teaching?
Definitely not for the better. I am horrified by what has happened. It used to be so exciting for kids to go to school, to learn for the sake of learning. Now we have blinders on. Teach for the test! Teach for the test! Teach for the test!

6. What motivated you to get involved in public safety issues?
One of the mayors called me to serve on the police (review) board. I said I didn’t know anything about it, and he said, you’ll learn. It was a fascinating experience and a very good one. I learned about tests that were (biased toward) the great white American.

7. Why is education important?
Why is breathing important? In Tennyson’s “Odyssey,” Ulysses says, “As if to breathe were life.” Without education, what is life?

8. You write columns for The News-Sentinel. Why is writing important?
It’s a marvelous release. It’s a wonderful way to argue without having anyone argue back.

9. You interview people about the books they are reading. So what are you reading these days?
I just finished a book, “Claire of the Sea Light,” by Edwidge Danticat. It was a sheer delight. And I want to re-read “Typhoon” by Joseph Conrad. I read it in college but I’d like to read it again to see what I may have missed. Now I’m reading “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt.

10. What is your favorite part of the library?
I love going into the Children’s Department. It’s phenomenal. I have not been allowed to go into the book tree. I’m president of the building and that counts for as much as a cup of tea! I love being in the stacks. I love seeing how the public uses my library and it is MY library! I think the library and the park system are the two best things about Fort Wayne. It’s there for the people.

11. Who was your favorite teacher and why?
Dr. Harlan Hatcher at Ohio State University. He taught Shakespeare. He was fantastic. He tore it apart and put it all back together.

12. What’s a typical day for you?
I sleep late. One of the best things about growing old is you don’t have to answer to nobody. I go to school (Memorial Park Middle School) one day a week. I used my check for the Father Tom (O’Connor Light of Christ) award to help fund an opera program there.

13. Did you ever think a Catholic bishop would present a Jewish woman with an award named for a Catholic priest?
Oh yes. I loved Bishop D’Arcy. He and I were friends. He was a man of the cloth but he was a man. We became very good friends. And Bishop Rhodes is a charming man.

14. What has been the most dramatic change you’ve seen over your lifetime?
Communication. I remember the first radio – Mrs. Dessauer’s house had one. And movies that talked. I saw the Al Jolson movie (“The Jazz Singer”). When he was singing it was like seeing a stage show. Then television came, and look here, I have a tablet. The whole world of communication is so different. And medicine. My father lived through the discovery of insulin and the use of radiation. He was so thrilled.

15. What cultural change did you not see coming?
I suppose integration, as far as it’s gone. And the acceptance on the part of many people of the gay world. It certainly is not complete.

16. What’s the change you’d still like to see?
My father served in World War I, my husband in World War II and my son in Vietnam. I would like a generation where nobody has to serve in uniform, where peace reigns supremely. Not just here, but all over the world. Can you think of anything better?

17. If there’s one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be and why?
Where shall I begin? Physically, I’d get rid of the arthritis. I’d like to be soft and warm and tender. I was never ‘cute.’ Other people were cute. I would love to have been born beautiful.

18. What were you like as a child?
Very quiet. My father said, ‘Do you think she’ll ever amount to anything?’ I was in my older brother’s shadow. I was 16 when I went to college. I had to learn to assert myself.

19. What words would your family and friends use to describe you?
Bossy? I hope not. I don’t think bossy is right. Compassionate, maybe. Understanding. Not overbearing ever. I’ve tried to back away from that.

20. What word would you use to describe your life?
Incredible. You know, back in the 1920s when I was growing up, Indiana was very anti-Semitic. The Klan was running everything. One grows up being insecure. You grow up sensitive to what other minorities are going through and you can empathize and I hope that’s something I’ve done in this incredible life I’ve had.

First appeared in the June 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.

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