Betty Messenger
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Messenger, Betty
1924 - 2020
Betty Thompson Messenger, 95, passed away on September 15, 2020. For the past three years, she resided at the Ohio Living Westminster-Thurber, a senior community in Columbus, Ohio, where until recently she continued to maintain an independent lifestyle. In her last months, she experienced cognitive decline, complicated by pandemic restrictions on visitors. That brief ending to a life well-lived sharply contrasts with Betty's joie de vivre, marked by an unflagging curiosity, her political and social activities in Columbus, and her wide circle of international friendships maintained in visits and correspondence. Into her 90s, a very vital Betty Messenger was the proud owner and driver of two cars. Born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1924, Betty was a devoted and generous contributor to her alma mater, Lawrence College (now Lawrence University). At Lawrence, she met her life partner John Messenger. They married shortly after World War II. Betty and John spent considerable time abroad, much of it engaged in fieldwork, first among the Anang Ibibio of southeastern Nigeria and then Ireland, where the Aran Islands were a favorite locale, New Zealand, and Montserrat. Amidst intense sectarian conflict in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Betty did research on workers in the linen industry. That work was the basis for her Ph.D. in Folklore at Indiana University, later culminating in her acclaimed book, Picking up the Linen Threads: A Study in Industrial Folklore (University of Texas Press, 1978). At Ohio State, Betty taught English composition. A fine editor, she was a valued reader of her friends' academic works. While it might appear that Betty followed a path frequently traveled by other gifted women of her generation, she did not sacrifice professional aspirations in order to support a husband's career. Hers was the life she chose, not a self-sacrificing concession to the demands of others. She remained her own person until the end. Betty and John enjoyed a true partnership of the head and heart, apparent to anyone who knew them. Often with a youthful exuberance, Betty would talk about Irish folklore and on one occasion during a visit to Oberlin, she recited a bawdy Irish riddle at the home of a particularly puritanical faculty couple. Into the awkward silence and seeing the frozen expressions of her hosts, Betty simply recovered with a smile and said, "Oh, dear." Betty enjoyed the recollection and with John felt that any good story bears repetition. A stalwart of the Central States Anthropological Society in which she held at least two offices, Betty was always a vital and welcoming presence, both to old friends and newcomers to the organization, particularly graduate students presenting their first professional papers. The ashes of the Messengers will be interred on the Lawrence campus, near a bench overlooking the Fox River. For those who wish to honor Betty's memory, they may support her vision of diversity in academia with a gift to the Betty and John Messenger Scholarship, with a preference for domestic African-American students, or the Dr. Betty Thompson and Dr. John Cowan Messenger Scholarship, with a preference for students from West Africa, both at Lawrence University, 711 E. Boldt Way, Appleton, WI 54911. Arrangements have been entrusted to SCHOEDINGER NORTHWEST CHAPEL. To share a special memory of Betty, please visit

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Published in The Columbus Dispatch from Sep. 19 to Sep. 20, 2020.
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September 20, 2020
Betty was lovely, enthusiastic, and very bright woman. I was an anthropology graduate student at The Ohio State University in 1974 and 1975 when I took a class with her husband John Messenger. He had so many interesting stories about their field work on the island of Montserrat in the West Indies that I became interesting in helping that island many years later after a series of volcanic eruption there, which began in 1995. My interest in Montserrat helped me to once again get in touch with the Messengers many years later. I got to know Betty better at this time. We had occasional lunches and dinners together which continued after John had passed away. I always enjoyed their stories of the places where they had done anthropological and folklore fieldwork -- Nigeria, Ireland, Montserrat, and New Zealand. They had so many fascinating tales to tell. I will miss Betty and her stories. We shared many multicultural interests.
Betsy Salt
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