Citizen of the Year: Betty Hollingsworth

Betty Hollingsworth of South Deerfield is the Recorder's 2012 Citizen of the Year.

Betty Hollingsworth of South Deerfield is the Recorder's 2012 Citizen of the Year. PAUL FRANZ

DEERFIELD – For 30 years, Franklin County has recognized a Recorder Citizen of the Year.

But never before has the honoree filled in for more than 50 Christmases as Santa Claus herself.

Elizabeth “Betty” Hollingsworth, who will be presented the annual award today at a Franklin County Chamber of Commerce breakfast at Deerfield Academy, not only answered hundreds of local children’s letters to Santa, she also taught the blind to ski, taught figure-skating and researched Deerfield residents killed fighting the nation’s wars.

Hollingsworth, the 84-year-old former Frontier Regional School District business manager, also helps organize reunions for her alma mater, Deerfield High School, and has been a tireless volunteer for the USO, serving military personnel and their families when troops are deployed and again when they return.

“I have a motto that says, ‘Move it or lose it,’” said Hollingsworth recently in her living room, surrounded by cartons filled with her pending projects. “It’s what’s carried me through.”

“Betty is the kindest, most unselfish woman I have ever known,” said neighbor Diane Olanyk. “She is everywhere you need her to be. And she’s been this way her whole life. She has a lot of love in her heart, and she puts that into everything she does.”

“Wherever there is a need, Betty is there helping,” added June Rosenthal, a friend since grammar school. “She is a remarkable person. I don’t know what this town would have done without her.”

“All her life, she has been a compassionate volunteer,” said former Frontier English teacher Leslie Thomas, praising “her intelligent support, integrity and a gift for self sacrifice.”

Thomas, who has remained a close friend since meeting Hollingsworth in 1956 when he came to teach at Frontier, said that when she became the school district’s business manager, “She saved us millions of dollars, because … you were not going to put anything over on her.” To this day, said Thomas, “She’s still dashing around like a mad meteor. And she’s a doll.”

Hollingsworth, who has lived in Deerfield since she was 2 years old, was recognized as USO Pioneer Valley Volunteer of the Year for 2012. She is donating half of her $500 Citizen of the Year cash prize to the organization.

“Every year we always receive nominations for people that give generously of their time to help make our communities better,” said Recorder Publisher Dennis Skoglund. “This year’s recipient has been volunteering for over 60 years and is described as “one of the most interesting people to know” — and we agree. We are proud to honor her today for all she has done to help so many people.”

It’s while serving the USO as a volunteer hostess during the Korean War that she met her late husband, Thomas, in 1953. He asked her for a dance at a Halloween party and then seven months later at another USO event. They were married in 1956. He died in 2009.

Over the past three years, she’s returned to volunteering for USO, sometimes heading down at midnight to Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee to serve troops before early morning deployments.

“We work on feeding them, setting up information, giving them coffee, giving them comfort, catering to the servicemen and their families,” said Hollingsworth, who vividly recalls going to the Greenfield train station to see her twin brothers go off to serve in World War II, and in the decade that followed organizing and taking part in USO dances in Holyoke. To greet troops who have just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, Hollingsworth has helped set up meals for them and their families.

“Those guys are starved,” she said. “It’s not only that they’ve been away. They want something to eat, and we serve them steak dinners.”

Hollingsworth and other USO volunteers also serve military families at Monday suppers and also operate a food pantry at Westover — and they plan fund-raisers to help meet those expenses.

“I feel very deeply committed to (the USO,)” she said. “Whatever we can do for their comfort. The perspective has changed from the World War II and Korean War days. You’ll see a mom being the one that’s gone, or the dad’s left, or some cases both are in the service, God forbid they both go to Afghanistan at the same time, and leave the small children. There are a lot of kids really in need. We see them all the time.”

When she brings fresh lettuce, tomatoes and other fresh vegetables from her garden to serve the military families, along with the burgers and hot dogs, Hollingsworth calls it “a labor of love.”

Santa letters

The same can be said for Hollingsworth writing her letters from Santa from 1952 to 2008 after being approached by someone at the local post office.

“It averaged about 50 every year. You know, I always got the same child writing; some of them hung on a long time believing in Santa Claus. Sometimes it was as many as five years in a row” — and often from children she knew from school.

Hollingsworth, who makes clear that it was the Postal Service — not she — that decided to end the tradition, said she has “every one of those letters” written by the children. “I kept a file every year. In some cases I sent them back to the children. It was a very satisfying situation.”

It was satisfying as well for Hollingsworth to teach blind skiers for 28 years, first at the Charlemont ski area then known as Thunder Mountain and later at Mount Tom in Holyoke. Her program involved teaching instructors to adapt and verbalize their technique and having them work in pairs, one to “run interference” with other skiers coming down from behind. “We loaded them onto that ski lift, and they were skiing from the top of the mountain. It was a marvelous experience, very demanding but very rewarding.” Among the dozens of learners were a blind husband-and-wife student team and a blind mother with two blind children.

Hollingsworth, who began skating when she was 5 years old, was also a founding member of the Greenfield Figure Skating Club, where she taught skating, put on ice shows, made costumes, scenery and sets from 1970 to 1978. She also taught figure skating in Brattleboro, Vt.

Three mornings a week, Hollinsgsworth swims at the Deerfield Academy pool with friends, as she has for years. She’s never attended the annual Chamber of Commerce holiday awards breakfast, she said, because every year, she’s been stroking her way across the waters at the same time.

“My husband used to say to me, ‘How could anybody get up when it’s 10 degrees below zero and put on a bathing suit to go swimming?’” she says with a laugh.

Hollingsworth has also been involved through the years in genealogical research of her family and her husband’s family. As a 1946 graduate of DHS, she organizes reunions of alumni from the school, which closed in 1956, and helped plan a recognition of DHS alumni who had served in the armed forces during World War II.

Using a database designed by her late husband, Hollingsworth maintains the class list to organize the reunions every three years, like the one held last August in Northampton.

“I had that going on at the same time as the Deerfield veterans’ street sign project.” For placement of those blue street signs around town, the Memorial Day Committee member pored over military histories for hours at a time to compile records of all 24 of those who have served from the town. A stack of half a dozen books rests beside her as she describes the project, and she displays inch-thick folders full of her investigations at libraries into the circumstances of each death.

“Indefatigable” is one of those words you don’t throw around lightly, but the term describes the decades of hard work by this Deerfield woman who started working as a chambermaid at Hotel Warren – and got fired when she cheerily announced it was her 11th birthday — and got a bookkeeping job after finishing Northampton Commercial College, at Ben’s Service Station in Sunderland.

While there, she recalls, “I was the go-fer, and I had a little red pickup, if they needed parts from Greenfield, Northampton, Worcester. … They also used me as the person to return the vehicle to people. I could drive trucks, I could drive buses, I could drive anything.”

In 1950, she went to work as secretary and bookkeeper for Union 41 School Superintendent Sidney Osborne, and then continued to work for Union 38 and Frontier when they were formed, retiring at the end of a 40-year career in 1989.

“When you retire, it feels like the weight of the world is off your shoulders,” she said. “You feel freer to do things that you never would think of doing, because you never had time.”

But at 84, Hollingsworth takes “involvement” to a new level, say Olanyk and others. And as her first motorcycle ride on the back of her son Tom’s Harley-Davidson a couple of years ago shows, she’s fearless ... and inspiring.

“She blows us younger people out of the water,” her neighbor says. “Her stamina … she’s incredible.”

The 30th Citizen of the Year has struggled with and overcome health issues over the years, and reflecting, “I nearly died one time, and I made a vow I’d be as productive as could be and do things I wanted to do and be a help to society, just because I feel that way. I like to do for other people.”

The annual citizen is selected from public nominations recommended by a five-member panel consisting of the Chamber president, the previous honoree and three Recorder-selected Franklin County residents.

Other Recorder citizens are Joan Vander Vliet, Al Dray and Philip Gilmore of Deerfield; Pearl Care of Erving; Theodore Martineau of Montague City; Rolland Gifford, Marion Taylor and Marvin Shippee of Shelburne Falls; Pam Clarke, Marjorie Reid, Edward Tombs, Irmarie Jones, Jean Cummings, David McCarthy, Charles Carter and Arline Cohn of Greenfield, the Rev. Stanley Aksamit, John Carey and Richard Kimball of Turners Falls, Albert Diemand and Theodore Lewis of Wendell, Frank R. “Bud” Foster and William Shores of Bernardston and Marian Holbrook of Northfield, Theodore Martineau of Montague, Allan Adie of Gill, Marty Picard and Geneva Lawson of Orange and Adelia Bardwell of Whately.

You can reach Richie Davis at:
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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