"What would I say?... Well… I suppose that I was born in Walla Walla, Washington on January 20, to Ruth and Gilbert Woods. My name is Betty, short for Elizabeth, though my real first name is Mildred. Did you know that? As a compromise they named me after several relatives, but no one ever called me Mildred. [Whispered aside:] I think that's just fine."
In every family, in every community, there's a person who is genuinely kind and welcoming, beloved and respected, a pillar of polite, sophisticated warmth, who will insist that you take another cookie because she can tell you're only holding back because you think it's the polite thing to do. Betty Clauson was such a person. Her unwavering commitment to the happiness of others made her a grandma to all.
Having found the adventure of remote, mid-20th century Alaska life as a young newlywed from down south, Betty embraced the challenges of Southeast with gusto and dignity, with energy and poise. Without pretension, she brought compassion and class to her new world, making both better off. There are even pictures of her commercial fishing for lingcod in a skirt (with great success! it is important to add).
Betty was born east of the Cascades in 1920. Through the Depression and the Second World War, she grew up, went to college, and became a primary school teacher, librarian, and artist --an expert in the fostering of children's minds (and sugar-intake).
At the height of the war, Betty made her way towards Puget Sound, where she worked for both the Boeing and Frederick & Nelson companies. While in Seattle, Miss Woods was introduced by a friend to a square-headed young Navy man, John Clauson, who took her ice-skating and sailing on Lake Union (though not on the same day of course). They were married (at his insistence) when the War ended (at her insistence), and, sight unseen, she followed her new husband up to his Alaskan home waters on their first fishing boat, the Killer Wow. To cope with the completely unfamiliar territory of watercraft and coastal travel, she bought a book on the subject and followed its directions, but there were still plenty of surprises. The impression the voyage made on her was so deep that she often spoke of it even in her final years. Topics like her first exposure to tides after waking up moored in a floating harbor for the first time ("John, how on earth did those pilings get so much taller in the night?") and losing a freshly-cooked pot-roast to heavy seas on the way into Cross Sound ("Is this why the stove is on hinges?") were timeless favorites.
The Clausons had many ports of call, but their home was Pelican (they were friends with town founder Charlie Raatikainen, and they exchanged Christmas cards with culinary genius Caddy Ganty). With her husband, Betty raised two children there, in a little house on the beach (and, briefly, Petersburg, when it was time for high school), instilling in them a love of learning and art, and krumkake.
Betty's was a generous soul. The quantity of mail that she still gets from the innumerable good causes she supported is testament to her willingness to give and concern for our planet and the creatures on it. Anyone wishing to follow her lead and make the world a little better in her honor should consider donating in support of the Pelican City Library, which she founded and operated as head librarian for thirty years --a contribution for which she was recognized by First Lady Ermalee Hickel as an Alaskan Woman of Distinction.
You might consider as well making a warm lunch for someone new in town, and welcoming them to your home. Betty's house was a home for all. As time went by, the Killer Wow was replaced by the Blithe Spirit, then eventually the Lightly; and today the children are gone, the cookie jar is empty, and the rock wall in the garden is covered by a blanket of moss, but the warmth she exuded can still be felt there.
She loved bluebirds, bells, music and children, never spoke ill of others, and made sure you wore a hat in the sun and ate your vegetables. She kept a journal for her entire life, and on quiet winter nights she wrote beautiful love poems about the former sailor snoozing in front of the fireplace. Now and then, despite his quiet stoicism, he wrote love poems about her, too.
She was preceded in death by far too many people, losses that she weathered with quiet dignity, and a beautiful smile that refused to be subdued.
She is survived by her Brother Bill of Minnesota (and sometimes Pelican) and his wife Marilyn and their children, by close cousins, by dear friends, by children who are now adults, for whom Betty was the first person they can remember reading books to them, and by her one remaining descendant, a grandson in Juneau, who, to her relief, faithfully continues to water her Christmas cactus, which is doing well.
Betty always wrote thank-yous, so she would undoubtedly want to thank the folks at her Pioneers' Home for all that they did for her comfort, the people of Pelican for the love and care they gave her and John for so many years, and she would especially want to thank Ms. B.C. for the great kindness she showed Betty's family when she moved to Sitka.
Betty would often tell the story of being a very little girl in Walla Walla, and meeting a woman who was "ninety! Ninety-years-old!" and of being truly in awe that someone could live so long and be so wise. It was, to the little girl, a seemingly impossible amount of time –a duration only superhumans could accomplish.
Elizabeth Woods Clauson passed away while dreaming in the Sitka Pioneers' Home on August 27. She was 93.
Published in The Juneau Empire on Sept. 13, 2013