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Opinion >  Column

Front Porch: Betty White led the way with kindness

Just a few days from now, on Monday, the lovely and much-loved actress-comedian (and oh so much more) Betty White would have turned 100.

But on the final day of 2021, she died what is the kindest of deaths, passing peacefully in her sleep.

She is being eulogized far and wide, and, if I may, I’d like to contribute a few words about what she meant to older Americans, and to this older American in particular.

For this week’s Front Porch column, I had already written what was probably the gloomiest thing I’ve done in years – looking bleakly ahead at this new year, able to muster my one and only quasi-positive comment, that the best I could hope for was that 2022 didn’t suck as badly as I thought it was going to.

Betty White would have been aghast. She wasn’t a Pollyanna, but being a Debbie Downer was definitely not how she lived her public or private life, and in being who she was, she made everyone around her smile. I want to be more like Betty White.

I dumped the column.

The outpouring of love for her and regret at her death have been way more than I think anyone expected. Sure, a day or two of expressed grief and remembrances, then moving on, as we usually do with the death of a person of note. But her loss lingers, not just among us gray-hairs, who were young when she was young, too, but also across the generations.

First of all, and perhaps oddly, we didn’t expect it, which is something rather surprising to say when a 99-year-old person dies. At that age, pretty much anything can get you, and at any time. Not that all illnesses are visible or publicly known, but she sure looked and acted healthy. And alive and energetic and happy.

Everybody who was paying attention expected her to hit the 100 mark. On the weekend of her death, People magazine came out with a cover story that prematurely congratulated her for reaching the century mark. A documentary-style movie had already been made and set to air on her birthday. Latest word has it that it will be shown, as planned, with, I’m sure, some last-minute editing and additions.

But not only did I and my friends, all in our 70s and 80s, expect her to continue on, we were counting on it. We were rooting for her. She was a stand-in for us, the living- and aging-with-pizzazz embodiment of how to live a good and meaningful life – at any age, frankly – but especially when older.

And, for me, her death reminded me to strive to bring sunlight, not clouds, whenever possible.

She showed us how to improve and stay relevant with the passing of the years, and, frankly, she is who we wanted to be when we grew up into our 90s ourselves – perhaps not as large or influential as she was, but to be a positive presence for those in the spaces we inhabit.

We want to do it like Betty was doing it – giving, not taking, taking care of others (in her case, especially animals who can’t speak for themselves) and spreading joy wherever she went. As long as she was out there doing that, she was a beacon lighting the way.

Even old people need role models.

She just made us all feel good – whether as Sue Ann Nivens (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”), Rose Nyland (“Golden Girls”) or Elka Ostrovsky (“Hot in Cleveland”) or in her many other delicious roles. Or when she was simply being Betty White.

Football fans and a lot of young kids love her from her part in that now-famous Snickers candy bar commercial at the Super Bowl. A lot of America delighted at her hosting “Saturday Night Live” at age 88. She has ardent fans for her many game show appearances. Or as the world’s best nontraditional grandmother in the film “The Proposal.” And on and on.

When doing the opening monologue hosting “SNL,” a gig which came about due to a fan-driven campaign on Facebook to get her there, she quizzically noted she didn’t know what Facebook was, but now that she did, she had to conclude, with impeccable timing and a smile, that “it’s a huge waste of time.”

There was always a sweetness about her, an optimism, a gentle self-deprecation and, I think, kindness. Always kindness.

I’ve read most of the remarks her fellow entertainment performers have made about her since her death. Of course, this is a time when people say nice things regardless. But the genuine outpouring and anecdotes and cherishing of experiences have been pretty effusive – even for Hollywood, which does everything BIG. None of it seems quite big enough for Betty White.

There simply aren’t enough kind through-and-through and genuinely nice people out there, whose inner beauty shines from coast to coast. And who have been doing so consistently for nearly 100 years.

We need more Betty Whites, to show older folks that we, too, can do good things into the years when most of us have been written off, and to younger ones, who can be inspired by a lifetime of positivity and goodness.

Plus, we want to hold on just a little longer to the ones we do have.

I love what actor Ryan Reynolds, who worked with her in “The Proposal,” said about her: “The world looks different now. She was great at defying expectation. She managed to grow very old and somehow, not old enough.”

Amen. And rest in peace.

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