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Bettye Welsh thriving at 90
A pen-pal romance with GI during World War II changed course of her life
Bettye Welsh cutout
Smiles have been a trademark for Bettye Welsh, poised to turn 90 next week. Shes holding her 1946 Texas high school portrait. That was the same year she and husband Gene moved to Ceres. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

There is no time like a 90th birthday for a person to pause, hit rewind, go back to the beginning and hit play. Although the endearing Bettye Welsh was the star of this feature, having a new audience to review the script of those dusted-off memories brought a sparkle in her eye for an hour and a half.

Thursday morning I visited with this familiar Ceres icon in the same home lived in since Eisenhower occupied the White House. Her new cat, Sugar, brushed against her legs after Bettye sat down, and then bounced up to perch on the back of the couch and drifted off into a nap to the cadence of Bettye's conversation.

Lots of people in Ceres know Bettye Welsh, who will be 90 on March 20. She has, after all, spent 72 of her 90 years here. Generations now gone had been befriended by her and benefited from her sweet disposition, kind personality and servant's heart.

Truth is, Bettye never would have ended up in Ceres had she not been asked in high school to become pen-pals with American GIs who were fighting the various enemies on foreign lands in World War II. One of the birthday cards she received from 20 GIs leaving out of Fort Ord turned out to be from Gene Welsh. Gene was off to fight the Japanese in the Philippines, something that would prove a hellish experience. After the war ended, Gene was certain he was in love with Bettye and knew he wanted to ride into the sunset with his Mexican cutie just as he saw Gene Autry and John Wayne do on the silver screen. Like the westerns, they married in Texas and moved out west. The curtain closed on their happily-ever-after when Gene - Bettye's cowboy hero - rode into the sunset on July 25, 2012.

Bettye's ready smile disappears and her eyes well up when the subject turns to how she has been since his passing.

"It's been rough," admits Bettye. "We were inseparable almost. We did everything together. There is a void there. He made me stronger."

The smile doesn't remain repressed for long. Her optimism naturally flows to the top again.

"Isn't that something?" Bettye says when I mention her upcoming birthday. We laugh.

"I can't believe it."

She's been in remarkably good health, no doubt from four decades of exercise as she and Gene were glided over the floors of Walter White School cafeteria as square dancers in the Ceres Twisters club.

Does she feels 90?

"There's days when I do but I don't know how 90 is supposed to feel."

Life began that 90 years ago in the Rio Grande Valley in a tiny town in Texas. The death of her father when Bettye was just two sealed a hard life in Sharyland would be tough.

"I never had a father figure because my mom was a single parent and raised five of us."

Her mother, who was brought across the Rio Grande River in a washtub, was a hard worker as a maid and nanny. The family lived on a farm that belonged to a Texas judge and wife.

Bettye remembers being sent to a school for Spanish-speaking Mexican-American children - bussed in a truck with a cage on the bed - even though she only spoke English.

"Because of being around people that were speaking English, I was speaking English before I was speaking any Spanish. We knew English already but that didn't matter."

The next scene of her life was going over to a regular country school as a fifth-grader.

"It was a rough time because we were of modest means. We didn't have much. I can remember my mother making me clothes out of printed flour sack."

Most students of Mexican descent were hounded from school because of the harassment - and because many had families that saw more value in having them work.

"We grew up like a lot of kids that are not Americans. They didn't like us. They didn't sit by us. But the judge that we lived around would speak to me. He'd say, ‘You know, you're as much American as they are. You were born right here. You just hold up for yourself. Don't let them run you over.' We felt like we were better than they thought we were because we were taught that."

Those who made fun of Bettye and her brothers never amounted to much, Bettye relates from her brothers who still live in that area.

Bettye and her brothers learned hard work early. They helped with house work, planting corn and harvesting to help mom.

The war was raging when Bettye was 16 and a junior in high school. In the two-year exchange of lines of prose on paper and some small photos, Bettye and Gene began having feelings of affection for one another. Bettye and her brothers tracked Gene's troop movements on a large map of the Philippines.

"He always said that if he ever got out of that mess over there - he was wounded several times and had a rough go - that he was going to come down (to Texas) and meet me."

Gene survived the war and turned up in Sharyland in March 1946. He was 21 and wasted no time in getting down to business with 18-year-old Bettye. He told her: "Well, I'm here for one thing only and that's to ask you to marry me." Bettye replied, "Are you sure?" Gene answered, "Well what do you think?" Bettye's "Yeah" sealed the course of her life.

Gene sought out her mother's approval. The first world out of her mouth was "no" and sunk Gene's heart. But following the long pause came: "Not until she graduates from high school."

They were married June 14, 1946 in a small garden ceremony.

Theirs was a real love story.

"He's the great man that ever lived. He really was and we had 66 years of marriage."

Gene immediately brought his bride to Ceres. He was a native of McAlester, Okla., where his father worked in coal. Gene had come to Ceres as a teen with his father to cut grapes and pick peaches - work he hated as much as his dad hated coal mining. But he liked Ceres though - enough to make it home with Bettye. Gene had saved money while in the service and bought his parents a house in Ceres. Gene and Bettye first lived with his parents at that house at Sixth and Roeding and then bought their present home in 1952 for $10,500. Bettye didn't think they could afford the $68 per month mortgage payment as he was making that each week.

Gene learned the body repair trade while working at Cadillac and Dodge car dealerships in Modesto and then decided to open Ceres Body Shop & Towing in 1957. Bettye helped with the books and fetch parts. Eventually their two boys, Ron and Mike, got involved in the family business.

Bettye liked Ceres. It was her first experience outside of home. Leaving her family behind in Texas was hard but she said Gene's sweetness as a man had a calming effect on her.

"He protected me. I think I was in love with the town, too, because we started immediately meeting people. He, being just out of the service, joined the American Legion and I the Auxiliary."

She remembers the Baldridges as a longtime Ceres family who came alongside her war-fragile husband and looked after him.

Both Bettye and Gene worked in Boys State and Girls State. Gene got involved in a Recreation Board that was in Ceres at the time and the two helped out in Little League and Pee Wee ball.

"In fact we bought our station wagon to carry the team to the next game. He was kind of the instigator of starting the Pee-Wee way back when and that involved me, of course, because we did everything together."

Bettye enjoyed getting close to members of the Ceres Garden Club including Jennie Whitmore Caswell, who lived in the Clinton Whitmore Mansion.

"Mrs. Caswell was a gracious lady and also dressed to a tea. She had a beautiful home. We had a lot of teas there and you didn't come in jeans and stuff - you came dressed up. And we had luncheons there. As a young bride when I came here, that's how I got started in gardening. They took me in as a young kid and taught me different things that I didn't know. I knew I had a green thumb and I could grow anything."

She and Gene were also part of the 1961 Ceres Paint-Up Festival. Part of a Ceres beautification effort, she and Gene also planted trees.

The Ceres Recreation Board talked about starting square dancing so Gene volunteered to learn how to call square dancing. Lessons were introduced in Ceres and a square dancing club was founded in 1959 and met in the old Community Center which was where the Police Department building is today. Some of the members were Gene and Gladys Robirds and Chub and Edna Sterling.

"Square dancing in our day was very popular but we saw peaks and valleys. We had as many as 100 couples in our club - one of the largest clubs in the area."
The couple remained in it for four decades.

When Gene would go out of town to call dances and the host would mispronounce the name of Ceres, he would go into a short speech about Modesto being a suburb of Ceres.

Bettye worked in food service for Ceres schools starting in 1962 at Carroll Fowler Elementary School. She went the extra mile by making uniforms for the kids who worked in the cafeteria to feel special. Bettye organized student tours of the kitchen too. When she retired 23 years later she was cafeteria manager at Don Pedro Elementary School.

Bettye is certain that the years of dancing have conditioned her to be in the agile shape she is today. She also remains active gardening and belongs to the Ceres Garden Club and Persephone Guild.

A mother's heart broke when son Ron died in 2004. The deaths of her son and husband have drawn Bettye closer to sole surviving son, Mike Welsh, who is a member of the Ceres Unified School District Board of Trustees.

"Mike sees after me and calls me or comes by every day. We've been closer he and I because now he's making a point to do that."

Ron and Mike have given Bettye eight grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

"My life has been good. Both Gene and I came from very poor families so we knew the value of trying to build, trying to save and work hard."