By Jackie Walsh
Although Betty White was considered a national treasure loved by all, she holds a special place in the hearts of Oak Park residents. The community gathered on Jan. 15 to celebrate White’s centennial birthday and life in the town where she was born.
The event had been on the village’s calendar all year, with the original intention to honor White’s 100th birthday on Jan. 17, a birth date shared with Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammed Ali. But White died in December, and the organizers pivoted to honor her legacy with the weekend event.
Despite the frigid weather that Saturday morning, hundreds of Oak Park residents and fans from far and wide gathered under the Classic Cinemas Lake Theatre marquee in the heart of town, bonded by their fierce love for White.
Vicki Scaman, Oak Park Village president, kicked off the event with a proclamation that officially declared Betty White Day to commemorate the day in 1922 that changed the course of history for not only the town but also the world.
Oak Park resident Lourdes Nicholls, Growing Community Media senior strategist and organizer of the event, said she prioritized including local businesses when planning the celebration.
“We just want to honor our hometown hero. We wanted the businesses to put out Betty White specials,” Nicholls said. “We thought people should celebrate her.”
Illinois state Senate Don Harmon (D-39th) reflected on the lessons that can be learned from White’s life.
“It’s not just her obvious sense of humor and her grace, but I would say it was her bearing – what she did for women, what she did for our animal friends,” said Harmon, whose district represents Oak Park and swings northwest to Elk Grove Village. “On Betty White Day and every day, perhaps we should all have a little Betty White in our lives.”
Frank Lipo, Oak Park River Forest Museum historian, spoke of White’s life in Oak Park. Lipo reminisced about the apartment on Pleasant Street where White’s family lived until her family moved to Southern California when she was 1 year old, and he shared an anecdote that captured White’s connection to her hometown.
“In a 1989 letter to the historical society, Betty White recalled visiting and staying with her aunt, uncle and grandparents in a house on Taylor Avenue on multiple occasions when she was growing up,” Lipo said. “She closed with ‘P.S. I am always careful to explain that I was born in Oak Park, not Chicago.’”
The musical gift of Cindy Fee, the voice of the “Golden Girls” theme song, “Thank You for Being a Friend,” and fellow Oak Park resident, rounded out the presenters.
Fee also invited the audience to join her in singing the tune that so many associate with White.
“Coming from Oak Park, she displayed the qualities that you find in so many Oak Parkers,” Fee said. “Optimism, love for the fellow man and, of course, an extreme love for animals.”
Kira Robson, Animal Care League executive director, said an adoption event felt like the natural way to celebrate White’s legacy.
“The theme of all of this has been that making her 100th the legacy it was supposed to be if she was still alive,” Robson said. “I’m hoping people will sign up to be a foster parent in her memory.”
Even in White’s absence, her presence in Oak Park persisted in the adoration for her that exuded from the hundreds of people in the crowd.
The words shared to honor White show that her connection to Oak Park will stretch beyond her times through the spirit of residents and the village.
“We can live in fear and distrust of others, or we can embrace all life with the same love and compassion Betty served us with so faithfully for so many years,” Fee said. “In a world of so much confusion and distrust, be like Betty.”
Jackie Walsh is a Sports Media graduate student at Medill.
Editor’s note, Jan. 31, 2022, 1:45 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Animal Care League Executive Director Kira Robson’s last name.