Barn cat proved no match for live wire

Charlie Powell

For most of two days, each separated by 20 years, I had the extreme honor of escorting Betty White around events in Pullman and Yakima.

The first was a fundraiser for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine. The second was a special ceremony for her, put on at the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association’s annual conference, where she was made an honorary WSU alumna and donned a white coat to recognize that.

As she arrived at the hotel in Yakima, it had been 20 years since I had been with her in person before. As the door opened, she looked up and said, “Charlie! What are you doing here?” She then hopped out and took my arm just like before.

For the WSU event, as the time neared the lunch hour, I was “tasked” with taking her to lunch. In a state car and before lunch, she asked me to drive her around the campus and let her see some more animals.

It was clear, she wanted to know more about WSU. We discussed many things, and this ultimate Hollywood survivor was tack sharp about animal research. On several occasions, I saw her confronted by others with the question of animal rights versus animal welfare. She would make it clear that her concerns were with animal welfare, including those used responsibly in research, and not animal rights. The latter she considered to be radical and counterproductive.

“I’ll go anywhere for lunch, I just want a big cheeseburger,” Betty said. I took her to Swilly’s, located at that time on NE Kamiaken. As we walked in, I expected a mob because the restaurant was busy. The hostess did a double take but didn’t say anything. The server was polite and again never said a word. There were eventually a few whispers and nods among the patrons.

As requested, the biggest cheeseburger on the menu came and Betty ate the whole thing. She drank a cola, too.

Betty’s wit was just as sharp as you’d see in her comedy productions. She cracked jokes all the time. Some of the things she’d say were a bit “naughty,” as she called it. When picking her up at her Yakima hotel room with only her private secretary nearby, I said, “I’ll be your escort for the evening.” As I stuck out my arm, I knew I had tossed a softball up for her to hit it out of the park.

“Whew,” said Betty, feigning a wipe to her brow. “That’s a relief because I was worried I’d have to go hunt one down.” Betty then scanned me up and down briefly and then turned to her secretary and said, “And look at this one, they didn’t do too badly.” Pause for laughter.

Over that evening in 2011 in the Yakima Convention Center, Betty was the center of attention. Many people walked up to her and thanked her respectfully for her body of work. People also noticed Betty liked vodka with a twist and started lining them up in front of her. She drank plenty of them and never wavered on my arm.

One person said, “Betty, we all love you so much, but one thing we’ve never heard you speak about was your political point of view.” Like the crack of a whip, Betty immediately responded, turning in her chair.

“Oh honey, I never talk about politics because when I do, I lose half my audience.” With that and a disarming smile, she summarily dismissed the boorish question.

That was the Betty White I knew. Rest in peace my friend.

Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service.

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