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While I was sitting across from Elizabeth “Betty” Imbrie Werrenrath, I couldn’t help but think about our age difference – 84 years. While my earliest memories are trips to Disney World in the early 2000s, Betty’s stretch back to World War I.
Before our interview, I was surprised to find glimpses of her life online – her high school and college alumni newsletters, records of the short films she made with her husband and even her engagement and wedding announcement in the New York Times from 1937.
I knew right away this was a woman who really lived, and upon meeting her, all my suspicions were confirmed.
Betty wanted to speak in person rather than over the phone, so I put on my N-95 mask and walked into the Highlands Assisted Living at Westminster Place on Simpson Street, passing a garden I soon would learn her late husband Reinald Werrenrath Jr. had advocated for.
After a temperature check, we headed back to her apartment where I learned about her long life and great love, Reinald, and the wonderful parts of her 108 years.
Betty was born on Jan. 28, 1914, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her father went to Princeton University and her mother to Vassar College.
Her father was a progressive Presbyterian minister who inspired Betty to spend a life dedicated to service and justice.
“I had an incredible upbringing, but I was always a preacher’s kid and I had to act decently in the world because he was so well-known,” she said. “I just automatically did what I thought was right.”
She attended Walnut Hill School for the Arts, at the time an all-girls private boarding school in Natick, Mass., and graduated in 1931. Today she is the school’s oldest living alumna. Her yearbook biography (pictured above) begins, “Dashing down the field, making baskets, shooting goals, and lobbing balls across the net – that’s Imbrie, Athletic Association President…and we bet she’s going to make some army officer a wonderful wife! ”
Although she didn’t marry an army officer, she found the love of her very long life at Wells College in Aurora, New York. Reinald and Betty were married for 82 years but knew each other for 86. Reinald was visiting Wells, where his sister also attended, and asked her to find him a date.
Reinald’s sister started listing people and when she mentioned Betty, Reinald was interested. But she was a minister’s daughter, his sister said, so she assumed he wouldn’t be interested. Reinald didn’t care and they went on their first date.
When I asked Betty if she missed Reinald, she said, “We had 86 years together, it was incredible. When I get sad and tearful, I think, ‘What are you crying about? You had a wonderful life and how many people do you know got to love somebody for 86 years?’”
But Reinald isn’t the whole story, Betty had her own life, too. She was the president of her freshman class at Wells and an athlete with a full scholarship that included a job in the alumni office. She played field hockey, soccer, lacrosse, tennis and golf.
“I seemed to speak out early,” Betty said when I asked her about her multiple passions and interests in college. This same drive for advocacy and involvement followed her for the rest of her life. She graduated with a degree in art history in 1935 and married Reinald in 1937.
Betty and Reinald moved to Forest Hills, New York, and Betty worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Reinald at NBC. He was asked to relocate to Chicago to launch WBKB, now known as ABC-7, Chicago’s first commercially licensed television station.
In 2016, Reinald gave an interview with ABC-7 as the last surviving member of the original WBKB team.
“I couldn’t have visualized what it’s [television] like today, but I knew it was a big thing of the future,” he said.
Betty and Reinald moved to Hinman Ave in Evanston in 1940, and Kirsten, their first child, was born in 1941. In 1942, duty called, and Reinald joined the armed forces as a Navy Officer Candidate School in World War II. During the war, Betty and Kirsten moved back to New York to live with her family.
“The world was an exciting place, but then the war came, and of course, it changed everybody’s lives,” Betty said.
After his military service, Reinald and Betty landed in Highland Park, where they resided for 53 years. Their two sons, Reinald (Ren) and Peter, were born. Reinald resumed his television career and both he and Betty became active members of the community, championing human rights and education.
Betty volunteered with Meals on Wheels, worked with local churches on youth reading programs and advocated for social justice and equality in and outside of their church.
Betty says she doesn’t see God as someone up in the sky “watching” over us.
“I’m a progressive. I believe that if there is an organization, like the church, not everyone is theological-oriented, but everybody has an experience relating to other people,” she said. “I see changes that need to be made and that is what I have been doing for years.”
The next half century was filled with travel, equity work, family and short films – Reinald and Betty made over 100 16mm educational films that were distributed nationwide.
In 1998, they moved into a townhouse in Presbyterian Homes in Evanston. Twenty years later, Reinald had a stroke at age 103. They settled into a new apartment in assisted living and Reinald passed away in 2019 at 104.
When Reinald passed, Betty said she was thankful to be able to stay in the same apartment, as she can still feel a part of him with her. As COVID-19 came and swept through assisted and independent living facilities, Betty spent a lot more time secluded in her room, something she wasn’t used to.
Friends could call but it wasn’t the same as visiting in person. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “It’s exciting to be part of the world, and that’s one of the troubles of being 107, you feel like you are cut off, except when you stick your nose in.”
Betty does her best thinking in the morning at her desk. She is on three committees: newcomers, spirituality and recycling. Until Betty, the assisted living facility did not have recycling cans in their rooms.
She said she has to be involved. “If you sit in your home and watch the world go by, you’re not worth living. I may be old, but I have learned a lot and I am still learning. I am not afraid of dying, but I don’t want to die yet.”
When asked why she thinks she lived so long, Betty said she goes on a walk every day, is an avid reader and follows the 4A’s, a system she created: Accept what you have, adapt to that acceptance, act on it and have a good attitude.
“I have to accept the fact that I am a 107 and I am limited by my eyesight and be grateful,” she said.
And when it comes to Reinald, she says she has to accept that he passed, but that they spent nearly a century inseparable.
“Do I ever get lonely? Yes and no. Reinald was such an important part of my life; he is still with me in spirit.”
As our interview ended, Betty and I talked about my life a little. I told her I had a boyfriend, and she said, “Thank goodness. That’s all I want to know.”
Betty was 23 years old when she got married, the same age I am now. As I write this article, I’m reminded that love is the one thing that doesn’t change based on the decade. It is a constant we can always count on, and if we’re lucky, it may just last almost a century.
Happy 108th Birthday, Betty Werrenrath!