When Betty reads them, she thinks about “all these wonderful people who are memorialized . . . There’s a lot of good stuff.”
Betty is a researcher by nature — she was a museum technician at the Smithsonian — and in October 2018 she started scrutinizing the language in The Post’s death notices. She kept track of phrases that turned up again and again.
Said Betty: “Once I got started, I couldn’t stop.”
After a year, Betty had compiled several pages’ worth of data. “I just didn’t know what to do with all that,” she said. “I could probably write a dissertation on it.”
I’m happy to say that she sent it to me.
The first thing that struck Betty were all the different ways people avoided using the D-word: died.
It is, I suppose, a word that is painfully final.
In a death notice, the most common euphemism for “died” is “passed,” as in “passed away.” Betty found a wide variation of adverbs describing that ultimate passage: passed away quietly, passed away gently, peacefully passed into the loving arms of her heavenly father.
Some notices added a bit of celestial geography: passed from this earthly realm, passed on to paradise.
“Entered” was another common verb: entered into eternal rest, entered the kingdom of heaven.
“Departed” showed up too. Some death notices combined the two words: departed this earth and entered into eternal glory.
Some people didn’t depart but “slipped,” as in slipped into eternal rest.
Others “transitioned” or were “called” or were “taken.” Some took the hand of Jesus.
Betty said she doesn’t mean any disrespect by her observations. What she really enjoyed were death notices that went beyond a mere résumé and gave a sense of the person, such as the death notice for Robert Winkler of Adelphi, Md., who “revved his engine and tore down the highway to the danger zone.”
And Brander Maxson “Bud” Pettway, of North Carolina, who “finished his last round; final score: 6-feet under par.”
Or the notice for McLean’s Nancy M. Packert Shashaty. Listed among Nancy’s accomplishments was her “uncanny ability to fix a problem with a cup of tea and a tuna fish sandwich.”
I asked Betty if she’d written her own death notice.
“I’ve just about decided I don’t want one,” she said. “Some of these people are really so exceptional and they need to be remembered. I’ve led a very quiet life for a number of years. There’s not a lot they could say about me.”
Oh, I don’t know.
Betty Lawson was just 17 when she first came to Washington from Illinois. That was in 1953. When she was in high school a special agent from the FBI had visited her class and told the students the bureau desperately needed typists.
Her mother let her take a train by herself to Washington.
“John Edgar Hoover said he’d find a place for me to live and that there was a nurse on duty if I got sick,” Betty said.
She moved into a women’s hotel at 1313 L St. NW run by the Salvation Army and called the Evangeline. There she got two meals a day and watched the Army-McCarthy hearings on a television in the lounge.
Betty spent three summers in Washington, between going to MacMurray College, a women’s college in Jacksonville, Ill.
“They considered themselves the Mount Holyoke of the Midwest,” she said.
One summer when Betty was working at the FBI, she went to a church party. Some people were playing softball. As she sat in the bleachers to watch, Betty met a man named Frederick Walters.
“He didn’t like to play softball,” she said. “I didn’t either.”
After Betty graduated from college, she wanted to put to use the security clearance she’d gotten while at the FBI. When she went to apply at the CIA, she was told they didn’t hire women in technical jobs and any position would involve fetching coffee.
She went to work at the NSA for a while, studying Arabic, then married Frederick, her bleacher-mate. He worked for the CIA and she accompanied him to such countries as Germany and Greece.
When they were back at their home in Rockville, Betty got a job at the National Museum of American History. She loved researching bits of arcane Americana. She published a monograph on Wooton’s Patent Secretary, an ornate desk designed and built in Indiana that had 100 cubbyholes and whose hinged wings could be folded and locked. John Rockefeller and Joseph Pulitzer owned Wooton desks.
Once a week, she and Frederick volunteer as librarians at the Rockville Senior Center. In October 2018, Betty started scrutinizing death notices in The Washington Post. She doesn’t do it so much anymore; the type is so small.
“It’s been a good ride,” said Betty, looking back at her 84 years.
You know the funny thing about death notices? They really should be called life notices.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.