Thank You for Being a Friend

One of the enduring modern jokes revolves around the continued existence of Keith Richards, the enigmatic and hard-living guitarist of the Rolling Stones. The dude looks like he’s 125 years old, thanks to a lifetime of drugs and rock music. Yet he soldiers on, seemingly an eternal. Believe it or not, Keith Richards is only 78.

When the Covid pandemic arrived in 2020, one of the earliest declarations across the zeitgeist was checking on the safety of a national treasure, Betty White. The First Lady of Television seemed to possess the everlasting gene, but, unlike Keith Richards, White’s health and age were a legitimate concern. By the time the Stones got rolling, Betty White could already list more than two decades of work on radio and television.

White seemed to outlast every fad. Her relevancy and reputation seemed to grow with every passing decade. Though the pandemic did not come from Betty White, we lost a gem on 31 December 2021 to a stroke, just 17 days before she would have turned 100. Her fame rose from media work, notably a seven-year run on Golden Girls, but a brief look into her life reveals she easily earns a spot in the Hallowed Halls of Woman Crush Wednesday at The Mountains Are Calling!

Betty White in 1954 with her dogs - photo from NBC

Arriving on the planet at Oak Park, Illinois on 17 January 1922, White’s family moved to Southern California just a year later. Her family vacationed often in the Sierra Nevada. This exposure to mountainous climes ignited a lifelong passion for nature and animals. White later recalled of these excursions that her family would go days “without seeing another two-legged soul.” By the time she graduated high school in 1939, White yearned to become a forest ranger. Just one problem existed: it was 1939 and Betty White was a woman. Forest rangers and being a woman did not mix at the time. “Back then, girls were not allowed to become forest rangers,” she said.

The forestry industry’s loss was ultimately the entertainment industry’s gain. During World War II, White joined the American Women’s Voluntary Services, driving a truck with supplies for the effort across California. After the conflict, White entered the radio world before becoming a mainstay on television. Throughout the 1950s, she hosted various shows. In the 1960s, she was nearly omnipresent on game shows. A stint on The Mary Tyler Moore Show preceded Golden Girls in the early 1980s, for which White became a cultural touchstone.

Over the past four decades, she remained a singular presence in the consciousness of the United States. Her roles changed but her love for animals never wavered.

The Golden Girls - NBC

In the 1970s, White created, produced, and hosted a show called The Pet Set. The program displayed the critter companions of celebrities. This show kicked off a period of animal welfare activism that lasted the rest of her life.

White served as a trustee of the Morris Animal Foundation, starting in 1971. She sat on the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, in addition to operating as Zoo Commissioner for eight years. She aided American Humane’s functions over the years.  White donated millions of dollars to organizations dedicated to animal welfare.  She promoted and advanced a slew of guide dog foundations, even adopting a pupper that was too outgoing for the focus required to help blind people. In 2009, she received the Jane Goodall Institute Global Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2012, White welcomed American Humane’s National Humanitarian Medal and the Legacy Award.

The woman seemed to dedicate all her free time to advancing the welfare of animals.

White in a PSA for Guide Dogs for the Blind
White nurses a gerenuk at the L.A. Zoo - photo by Tad Motoyama

Betty White employed her fame for a variety of causes beyond animals. If you have a high view of America’s idol, you should research her past and the things she advocated: your perspective will only brighten.

Since her death, donations to animal welfare organizations have rocketed to new heights. The “Betty White Challenge” spread across internet outlets, prompting individuals to contribute to the places she aided and adored during her lifetime. It’s an outpouring of love for which she would have been proud, but cannot witness.

She did live long enough, however, to witness one sadness in her life find a resolution. In 2010, the U.S. Forest Service atoned for the sexism of White’s early life in America. They made her an honorary forest ranger! When she received the customary big-brimmed hat, White quipped that her parents “would be more proud of this than of any other award I have won.”

Of course, White would be the first person to note we still have a long way to go. Today, only 38% of the U.S. Forest Service’s workers and only about a fifth of the rangers are women. Still, that’s significantly better than the 0% of White’s youth.

To all those aspiring to work in the wild and become an ally for critters, we can apply the theme song from Golden Girls in a message to Betty White: thank you for being a friend! 

Betty White finally becomes a ranger! - photo by U.S. Forest Service
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