Mother, world traveller, friend to the famous, admirable neighbour. Born on Oct. 23, 1913, in Ottawa; died on April 24, 2014, in Ottawa, of old age and on her own terms, aged 100.
My wife, Liz, and I heard about Betty Eligh well before we met her. As a young couple with a toddler and a baby on the way, we bought a handyman special in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood in 1979. The house and yard were a wreck before we moved in and one of the first stories we heard was that a neighbour from across the street – a small, sprightly woman dressed all in black – had been coming over late at night to rake the yard and tidy it as best she could.
Betty Eligh had lived on Broadway Avenue since 1924, so it’s not surprising she had a sense of propriety about her street.
But the story also spoke to her character: Betty was resolute in doing good without drawing attention to herself. Those who got to know her, as we did over the years, admired her as a woman who lived life as it ought to be lived, with exactly the right mix of kindness, fun, practicality, and firm conviction.
We knew Betty in her retirement years. She was a presence but much too active to be called a fixture. She gardened and did volunteer work (particularly with the May Court Club, which she served for 70 years), helped her neighbours and visited family in British Columbia.
She also travelled to exotic places: In her 70s, she slept under canvas on a safari in Tanzania; in her 80s, she rode the Eastern & Oriental Express from Bangkok to Singapore. She also climbed the Great Wall of China and explored Scandinavian fjords, among other adventures.
Betty must have been a real dynamo in earlier years, when she worked for famed photographer Yousuf Karsh, constitutional expert Eugene Forsey, and John Diefenbaker.
Dief had a reputation for being tough on staff. One day he came into the office with a stuffed marlin he was proud to have caught on a southern fishing trip, with the idea of displaying it on the wall behind her desk. Betty set him straight: “No way. The fish goes, or I do!” She stayed with him to the end as his personal secretary.
Although she had accompanied him many times on the campaign trail, one of the highlights of her life was travelling on the cross-country funeral train that carried the former prime minister from Ottawa back home to Saskatchewan. She stayed up all hours to see the crowds paying their respects to the man to whom she had been devoted.
Betty faced many challenges in her long life. She lost her mother when she was young, and her husband, Ted Eligh, died when she was in her late 40s. She then returned to work to support her father, Ebin Campbell, and her daughter, Janet. Betty spent her final years blind and nearly deaf. But she was never self-indulgent; she made a point of being kind, of connecting with others.
One day, shortly before she moved to a retirement home – after living on Broadway for an astonishing 84 years – I met her on the sidewalk on the way to the mailbox. I asked her how she was doing. Betty was nearly blind then, and I had to speak loudly. “Not well,” she replied, and then grinned. “But I’m not complaining. Start complaining, and your friends leave you like flies.” And then we both laughed.
James Palmer is Betty’s friend.