The Wit and Wisdom of Betsy Birdwhistle

It always saddens me when I go through the obituaries and find a name I need to remove from the Notable Nineties list. It’s even worse, however, when I have to remove one of our Sensational Centenarians.

This past year I had to take two Sensational Centenarians off the list, both of whom were friends of mine I met while working at Conner Prairie. We lost Eileen McClellan early in 2022 and Betty Gerrard passed away just a couple of weeks ago.

Betty worked at Conner Prairie for 42 years and Eileen was there nearly that long. They were two of the most positive-thinking people I’ve ever met and I will miss them both.

I’ll especially miss Betty’s impish sense of humor. She always called Eileen her “Little Buddy,” conveniently overlooking the fact she was no bigger than Eileen.

Betty was also known by her Conner Prairie name, Betsy Birdwhistle — not just at the museum, but around town as well. It was so common to call her Betsy Birdwhistle, I think some people may even have believed that was her real name.

She told me someone once wrote a check out to “Betsy Birdwhistle” and the bank cashed it for her! (Noblesville used to be small enough you could get away with things like that.)

“Birdwhistle” was a fitting moniker for Betty because she was quite musical. She played piano and organ by ear, and she learned to play the dulcimer at Conner Prairie so well that the museum would send her out give demonstrations at schools and other places.

I remember watching her entertain school groups while the children waited for their turn to go out on the museum grounds. She had those kids in the palm of her hand as she strummed her dulcimer and led them in little ditties like “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.”

Someone once asked if she’d ever taken any music lessons. Betty replied, “I had a few lessons, but they didn’t do permanent damage.”

Back in the ‘70s when she and another Conner Prairie interpreter were assigned to portray weavers, working on a loom at the rear of the village store, their characters weren’t given names, so they came up with their own, introducing themselves to visitors as “Polly” and “Esther.”

(Get it? Polly . . . Esther?)

That only lasted until someone higher up in the food chain heard about it. Although the names were perfectly valid for the time period, the museum’s powers that be didn’t see the humor in their little joke and made them stop.

Betty had a talent for coming up with names for things, like saying she had “Sometimers.” (That’s when you can’t immediately pull up a name or some other bit of information, but it pops into your head a minute later.)

I think of her every time I drive down Tenth Street and see the empty lot where her little house used to be. It was recently razed, a casualty of Noblesville’s (cough) “progress.”

The last time I visited Betty in her assisted living facility, she told me she knew that was going to happen and said it broke her heart, but in true Betsy Birdwhistle fashion, she shrugged it off, then moved on to another topic.

Betty left us with one final reminder of her sense of humor — her headstone bears the inscription, “See, I told you I was sick.”

That’s pure Betsy Birdwhistle — even though she’s gone, she’s still making us smile.

Notable Nineties Update: Cora (Hunter) McCoy has added several names to the list: Rosemary (Leonard) Miller, Jane (Long) Morton, Wanda (Carmony) Hiday, Geraldine (Whelcher) Kinzer and Edgar Irion. They’re all Walnut Grove graduates!

Also, Jenny Kronenberg added her mother-in-law, Esther (Dick) Kronenberg of Cicero.


Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears on Wednesdays in The Times. Contact her at [email protected]