Elizabeth G. Matthews-Bette

BetteElizabeth G. Matthews—Bette—passed away at the age of 90 at about 9:45 p.m. on Friday, October 7, 2016, in Bellevue, Washington.  She is survived by her husband of 50 years, Al Matthews, her sister, June Sameraro, her brother, Harold Gilbert, her sons, John and Mark D’Amato, their wives, Kristina Inn and Linda D’Amato, her stepchildren, Lee Matthews-Huffman and Mike Matthews, their spouses, Charley Matthews-Huffman and Carol Matthews, her granddaughters, Cara, Jessica, and Maia D’Amato, as well as Cara’s husband, Garratt Powers, together with Al’s grandchildren, Jennifer Carricut and Liz Stenhouse, their husbands, Jon Ysaguirre and Todd Stenhouse, and Liz’s son, Rhys.

Bette was dearly loved and deeply esteemed by all for her warmth, wisdom, sense of humor, and good counsel.  She was a force in the lives of all who had the good fortune to know her.  She was a great woman, and her loss is incalculable, as suggested by the many broken hearts she leaves behind.

When she passed, Bette was a retired civil servant who had had a career of more than 20 years working for the U.S. Government and who had risen to be the most highly ranked civilian employee at the Military Traffic Management Command of the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis.  She had earned an Associate of Arts and Sciences Degree from Fort Steilacoom Community College and lived a comfortable life with Al, who had retired from law, in downtown Bellevue.

But it wasn’t always like that for Bette.  She began life in very modest circumstances.  The measure of the woman lies in how she made the trip to personal and social fulfillment from her modest beginnings.

Bette was born Elizabeth Faye Gilbert on March 20, 1926 in a town called War in McDowell County, West Virginia—part of coal country.   She was the fourth child of her father, General Rufus (or G.R.) Gilbert, and her mother, Susie Alice Arrington Gilbert.  G.R. was a barber.  Susie was a homemaker, although “homemaker” covered a lot of ground in those days.  Susie sewed clothes for her family, grew produce for their meals, and was their first teacher.  She was the glue of the family.

The Great Depression, which commenced a few years after Bette’s birth, was hard on the Gilbert family.  But the family was extremely resourceful, and they weathered the storm. Customers stopped going to barbers, and G.R. soon lost his barbershop in War, but the family found cheaper rent in nearby hamlets. They moved first to a wide spot in the road called Cucumber and then to an even smaller hamlet called Newhall.  The house they found at Newhall was set off by itself on a ridge—there were no neighbors—and came with a small piece of cleared land.  Farming this land was instrumental in helping the Gilbert family get through 1932-1934, the worst years of the Great Depression.  They didn’t have much money, but they didn’t need much to survive.  They grew corn, beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and beets on the land, and stored the produce in an earthen larder.  All they really needed from the general store were sugar, salt, flour, yeast, baking soda, and fatback.  G.R. earned a stipend from a WPA project in Ohio and his winnings from turkey shoots and pool games supplemented whatever he could still make as a barber.

The house in Newhall had just four rooms—two bedrooms, a parlor, and a kitchen. Bette and her two older sisters, Opal and June, slept in one bedroom, G.R. and Susie slept in the other, and Bernard, the oldest Gilbert child, slept in the parlor.  When Harold, the youngest child, was born in 1933, he slept with his parents.  The house had no plumbing or bathroom, no running water, and it was wallpapered with old newspaper.  There was a washtub in the kitchen, which was used for bathing and laundry.  Water came from either the county water line or a spring behind the house and had to be hauled to the house by hand.  The family used county water for laundry and bathing, but Susie preferred rain water from the spring for drinking and cooking.  They got hot water by heating it up in pots on a wood-burning stove called the “Old Majestic.”  They didn’t have a fireplace or other heat.  When it got cold, Susie would fill up canning jars with hot water for the girls’ bed.

Bette was happy in Newhall, and she learned how to be resourceful from that experience.  There were no neighbors, but she created playmates out of her dog, Old Ruff, and two trees, which she named Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Green, and for whom she would pour tea.  She and her two older sisters would sometimes cut images out of the Sears catalogue, glue them to thin cardboard, and play “house” with them in their mother’s sewing machine cabinet—much to the consternation of Susie when she found her sewing machine littered with “shapes.”  Although Bette was the youngest of the three girls, she was fiercely protective of her older sisters throughout her life.  Susie taught Bette to read and do numbers in the house at Newhall, not with a chalkboard or paper, but by drawing letters and numbers in the condensation on the side of the Old Majestic.  An able student, Bette started primary school a year early, and education became a lifelong passion.  Bette adored G.R., who would dance and sing for her, and she helped her father plant seeds in their truck garden.  At night, when Bernard went looking for firewood, she would hold the lantern for him and ride on the branches when he slid the wood down the hill to their house.  When Bernard accidentally buried an axe in his leg, she helped him boil needle and thread to sew it up.  Bernard was always Bette’s hero.

The resourcefulness and devotion to family Bette learned at Newhall stood her in good stead throughout her life.  She was indomitable and fearless, and she worked whenever and wherever she could.  She got her first job in 1941 at Murphy’s 10 Cent Store in Welch, West Virginia when she was 15.  When customers complained that she was too young to work, the store manager had said, “I thought you were 16,” to which she had replied, “Well, I’m going to be.”  The manager didn’t fire her but, instead, gave her the job of dressing the store’s windows.  She excelled at that and was given an assistant.

After graduating high school in Welch, Bette found work in a wartime factory in Baltimore, Maryland.  She met her first husband, John D’Amato, in Baltimore.  After giving birth to her two sons, she worked in the early 1950s as an owner-manager of a small sundry store in Hollywood, California.  She also learned to be a makeup artist in Hollywood.  When her husband’s work took her to Costa Rica, she drove the family car—a Buick Roadmaster—by herself on the dangerous route from Los Angeles to San Jose, Costa Rica.  When her husband’s work next took her to the Middle East, she taught English in Jordan and Yemen and also operated a commissary in Yemen.  After she married her second husband, Al Matthews, an Army officer, and the couple was transferred to Germany, she began to work as a civil servant for the U.S. government.  Bette continued that career when Al retired from the Army and went to law school in Washington, later becoming a prosecutor and judge.

BetteBette’s crowning achievement in her professional life was her work as the top civilian employee of the Military Traffic Management Command at Fort Lewis.  She recalled that when the top civilian job at the Command Center opened up, a number of men also applied for the position and made it clear that they did not regard her as a serious rival. When the position was awarded to her, one of the disappointed applicants let it be known that he could not work for a woman.  Her response was to terminate him by asking how long it would take for him to pack his things; after that, she had no more challenges to her authority.  Bette’s special gift, however, was in the individual attention she gave to each employee.  She helped the employees of her unit design self-improvement plans.  This included motivating employees to adopt physical exercise regimens and to take college courses that would enable them to get ahead in their careers.  She was loved by all of her employees and received numerous awards from the Army for outstanding service.  After she retired in 1991, the employees from her unit organized periodic get-togethers to socialize with her and remember their good times together.  Even the man who had been terminated upon Bette’s assuming the top position attended these get-togethers.

Bette’s success at her office was due not only to her managerial skills but also to her warmth, loving nature, and wisdom about people.   She once made a telling demonstration of these capacities to her son, John, while receiving treatment for a brain tumor at a hospital in 1991.  John was upset because he thought Bette had been treated rudely by a receptionist.  Bette saw that he was upset and said, “Watch this.”  She then went back to the receptionist and struck up a conversation with her.  Within a few moments, the two were laughing together and chatting as if they were lifelong friends.  “Did you see that?” she asked.

On another occasion, she was dealing with a work situation at which her son, John, happened to be present.  She was conversing with a group of men, and one of them made fun of her Southern accent.  Later, John asked, “Doesn’t it bother you, Mom, when they make fun of you like that?” “No,” she said shrewdly, “I just let ‘em think I’m some old Southern fool.”

Her sense of humor never failed her.  In her stories about her childhood, she often recalled spending the night with a teacher when she was five.  Susie had instructed her to thank the teach and compliment her on everything she was given.  One of those things was lime Jello for dessert, which Bette did not like at all.  When the teacher asked how it was, however, Bette said, “Delicious!”  “Then you shall have seconds!” the teacher had said.  Recounting this story, Bette would always laugh ruefully at the predicament she had created for herself.

Even when her memory began to fail in her last months owing to the various traumas she had suffered, she maintained her sense of humor.  Once, when struggling to find a word, she exclaimed, “I’m inventing a whole new dictionary!” and broke into laughter.

On another occasion, her son had forgotten what he was going to say next, and Bette broke into laughter, telling him, “One of these days I’m going to be looking down from heaven and laughing at you for forgetting things!”

Bette considered her two sons her proudest achievement.  She once said to them, “Sometimes, I can’t believe you’re mine.”  Her sons attributed their success at starting successful professional companies to lessons that they had learned from her.

Relationships between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law are often fraught with issues, but that was not the case for Bette and her daughters-in-law, Linda and Kristina.  She thought of them as daughters, and Linda and Kristina grieved for her as daughters when she passed.

So, too, her stepdaughter, Lee, and stepson, Michael, loved her and were loved by her in return, together with Lee’s daughter Jen and Jen’s husband, Jon.

She adored and delighted in her granddaughters, Cara, Jessica, and Maia, and they all loved her.  She was thrilled by Cara’s recent marriage to Garratt, who also loved and was loved by Bette.  Bette was looking forward to Jessica’s wedding to her fiancé, Brandon Crosby, and never tired of stories about Maia’s exploits.

Al and Bette had a very passionate relationship, in which they continually challenged each other and kept each other going.  Neither could imagine being without the other.  Bette’s passing has left Al bereft.

Bette was truly a singularly loving, funny, resourceful, fearless, and wise person from whose loss no one who knew her will ever fully recover.

Rest in Peace, Bette

2 Responses to “Elizabeth G. Matthews-Bette”

  • Sharon Spillman says:

    What a lovely tribute to a beautiful lady. I am deeply sorry for your loss. Thinking of you all during this time.

  • Marcia Mccorkle says:

    I always enjoyed Bette’s stories. And we both appreciated the animals in this world. Rest in peace Bette. You were a very special and unique person.

    Marcia McCorkle

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