The Lord clan gathered in Springfield for Thanksgiving in 2016 – son Billy and daughter Darlene to the left of their parents Bettye and Bill, with son Patrick at far right. (Photo: submitted by family)

Bettye Sue Lord was born in Springfield, Tennessee, and lived her last two decades in Springfield, Missouri — but her years in-between were spent hither and yon, teaching her children and scores of others how to survive and thrive anywhere and everywhere.

Bettye, who died May 14 at the age of 86, contracted scarlet fever as a child, and it affected her heart and left her deaf in one ear. “The doctors at the time told my grandparents to not get too close to her,” says son Patrick. “They said she was an unhealthy child and would always be frail. Well, frail is a term that I never would’ve applied to my mom!

“She was vibrant, she was active, she was very intelligent. She went from a bed-ridden child in rural Robertson County, Tennessee, to someone who lived all over this country and in Germany and London, being a good wife and a mother raising three kids, earning two master’s degrees, and working as a trainer for multi-national corporations teaching their employees how to adapt to living in foreign countries. 

Bettye Sue Lord, 1935-2022

“Her arc of life was just astounding.”

Bettye Ellis was 21 when she met young Army chaplain assistant Bill Lord in church. They courted and fell in love before he was posted to Germany in 1956. “He missed her and wrote her to ‘Come marry me,’” says Patrick. “And she did, in January 1957.”

A favorite family story illustrates how provincial Bettye was at that age and stage — her first venture outside of her home state or neighboring Kentucky:

“Mom arrived in Germany not speaking the language, not knowing a single person there except my dad,” recounts Patrick. “When the plane landed, the sign read ‘Munchen,’ which is German for what we refer to as Munich. So she’s not getting off the plane. They say to her, ‘You must get off, this is the last stop.’ And she says, ‘No, Munich.’ They go, ‘Yes, Munchen.’ She insists, ‘No, I’m going to Munich’ – and she absolutely wasn’t going to get off that plane!

“The legend is that the airline employees went into the terminal and got my dad, who was standing there wondering, ‘Where is my bride-to-be?’ When she saw him, she finally got off the plane.”

A transient life

Bettye holds daughter Darlene, with eldest son Patrick and youngest Billy standing at their side, in 1965. (Photo: submitted by family)

During the next quarter-century, as Bill rose to full chaplain and colonel, Bettye often was, in military parlance, “geographically single” as her husband’s postings included three tours in Vietnam plus several stateside assignments.

Patrick says he’d attended 14 schools by the time he completed the 12th grade. The way Darlene Weiss, Bettye and Bill’s middle child, figures it, “We moved, on average, once every 18 months during the first 18 years of my life. It seemed like moving was just something you did, like going to the grocery store.

“Mom was marvelous, she made it seem seamless. She was organized and efficient; she always had a plan. Of course, her plans were malleable because, well, in the military they had to be. She had to be flexible. But she never made it seem like work,” Darlene says. 

“After I became a military wife myself and had children, and we started moving around, I called her and said, ‘How did you do this? I don’t remember it being so hard!’ And Mom just laughed and said, ‘Well, you just do what you have to do.’”

Patrick, who recently retired after a career as a clinical psychologist in Springfield, says Bettye did what she had to do — and then some. (See sidebar.)

Bettye Sue Lord

Bettye Sue Lord inspired scenes in movie and book

This story is part of an in-depth obituary of Bettye Sue Lord. One episode in Bettye Lord’s life was depicted in a book and a movie. “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young” is the title of the book published in 1992 that recounted the first major confrontation involving American troops in the Vietnam War…

“Because we moved so many places, there were lots of opportunities to do new things,” he says. “Mom was always open to new experiences. And she was always encouraging us to experience new things. We went panning for gold. We went river-rafting. We went skiing…”

Darlene, who is a retired history teacher and who moved here in 2021 to be close during Bettye’s final years, agrees: 

“Mom’s outlook was, ‘You can’t not like it if you haven’t tried it.’ Although there were things that she probably was frightened to try, she tried them anyway because she thought we should try them. 

“Everywhere we went, we learned stuff. We learned the local history. We’d get the facts from Dad, but we’d get the empathy of the situations from Mom. She’d tell us about how people lived, what kind of limits were placed on them and what kinds of opportunities they had. And she’d encourage us to think beyond our own little world and develop a really broad worldview. She wanted us to engage and to grow in every place we lived. We were never stagnant.”

The family moved from post to post — Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Colorado, New York and elsewhere, including Missouri, when Bill was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood. Darlene and Patrick both graduated from Waynesville High School. Darlene attended Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar her freshman year, and Patrick began his college education at then-Southwest Missouri State (now MSU). 

Darlene enjoyed some posts more than others. Fort Hamilton in New York City wasn’t her favorite.

“Brooklyn wasn’t a fun place for me to live,” she remembers. “Fort Hamilton was like being in a cage, surrounded by a high fence. But Mom still encouraged us to explore. I was 12 or 13. Mom took me on subway rides, we went to Broadway, she took me to the Tiffany jewelry store in the city. We didn’t go in, we just stood on the sidewalk. She bought me a bagel and said, ‘Here, now you can say you’ve had breakfast at Tiffany’s, like the movie.’

“That was the kind of thing Mom would do. She made it a really fun day every time. She would find some way or some thing that brought interest or adventure.”

The youngest Lord child, Billy, who lives in Zandvoort in the Netherlands, says that because of his mother’s inquisitive and exploratory spirit, he “learned not to fear change or difference, and to view life as an adventure. I am convinced that this is why I have so easily found my own home and built a life overseas.”

Influencing her children through books and sewing

Billy says Bettye “was a voracious reader, and she encouraged us to become the same. I recall being challenged one summer to read a book a week, and to give oral book reports for her.” He tells of the family’s move from Maryland to Colorado, camping out along the journey in a pop-up trailer. “Mom was reading a book over the course of the trip, and she explained her need to squeeze in a chapter at every possible opportunity by saying ‘I’ve got a man up a tree.’ I still find myself saying this when I have something that I don’t want to stop doing, or when reading a book that I don’t want to put down.”

Bettye’s abilities as a seamstress influenced Billy’s later professional life. “I ended up having a career in musical theater. I’d spent a good many years of my childhood in school and community productions. In my sophomore year of high school, our drama teacher decided to cast boys as Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters because she didn’t want any of the girls to feel that they were being singled out because of their appearance. 

“I was sent home with a load of brown and red tartan and lemon yellow taffeta, with instructions to have Mom make an ugly ball gown. She did – but it was sent home a total of three more times because it was too nice and needed to be ‘uglied up.’

“She challenged me to get involved, and together we created quite a monstrosity,” Billy says, adding: “I consider this episode to have been when I first became interested in design. I went on to hold the position of chief designer for the costume shop that supported all the community theaters on U.S. military bases in Europe.”

Discipline in the Lord household taught lessons

While her husband was away, especially during his three stints in Vietnam — where he earned, among other honors, a silver star, bronze star and master parachutist’s badge — Bettye was the de facto disciplinarian for the three kids.

Billy, three and a half years younger than Darlene, says his mom and dad “were more experienced at parenting by the time I came along … I learned quite a bit from witnessing my older siblings’ actions and the resulting consequences. I joke that Pat taught me how NOT to behave … Pat says I got away with so much because he paved the way … They allowed me many more freedoms — and, in response, I tried very hard not to disappoint.”

Darlene says discipline was doled out in a “very fair” manner. “I remember it being explained to us why we were being disciplined, how we were being disciplined, and then receiving the discipline.”

Patrick cites two examples of Bettye’s approach. The first occurred when the family was within the confines of Fort Hamilton while Bill was in Vietnam:

“I decided at the ripe age of 14, since I was in the great city of New York, that I didn’t have to put up with this crap. So I took off and was gone for several days. I learned a lot running away — sleeping in tenement houses, people stealing your money and subway tokens, having to wait to eat until people got up from tables at outdoor cafes. 

“This wore on me, and eventually I said to myself ‘What am I doing?’ and I went back home. I am one of the few people, I’m sure, who was ever apprehended climbing over the fence INTO Fort Hamilton. I got caught on the wires, and an MP comes up and says, ‘You’re that Lord kid we’ve been looking for, right?’” 

Patrick was taken to the post’s military police station, and Bettye was summoned. Using shortwave radio, word also was sent to Vietnam to assure Bill that his son was safe. “They sent a helicopter out to the rice paddies where he was,” Patrick says. “He got on the radio and it was ‘RAAARRR! RAAARRR! RAAARRR!’ His nickname for me was Knothead, and I probably deserved it.

“When I left that MP station with my mom, I thought, ‘I’m in deep trouble.’ But she didn’t say a word. We went into our house, she sat me down, she made me a grilled cheese sandwich and some cream of tomato soup. She wrapped a blanket around me, bent down and hugged me and, with tears in her eyes, she said: ‘I’m so glad you’re home safe.’”

A few years later, living at Fort Leonard Wood while attending high school at Waynesville, Patrick challenged parental curfews.

“I would get home late, and Mom got tired of staying up waiting for me. So we had this big discussion about boundaries, why they’re important and why I needed to be in on time. But just after that, I stayed out too late one night again.

“I was pretty sure that she’d fall asleep and that I could sneak in. But she’d rearranged the furniture in the entryway — and as soon as I snuck in the front door, I knocked over something in the dark. Mom heard me from upstairs, and she goes: ‘It’s 1:30 a.m., Patrick. We’ll talk about this in the morning!’ I was busted, so busted…”

Professional life and next generations

Despite the crush of parental double-duty, Bettye somehow found time to earn a college teaching degree and two master’s degrees in religious education. She was able to apply some of those skills in a second career following Bill’s retirement from the Army in the mid-1980s. Still in Europe, together they formed a company that offered training for Fortune 500 corporations that sent American employees to work overseas, especially in Europe.

Bettye’s graduation photo, Class of 1953 at Clarksville (Tennessee) High School. (Photo: submitted by family)

“The success rate of those moves hadn’t been very good,” explains Patrick. “Some of those workers came over with their families, and they didn’t adjust very well. So Mom and Dad set up training seminars to prep people to help them to learn how the economic systems were different, how the schools were different, how to adapt to being an American living abroad.

“The business was wildly successful. They lived in Heidelberg, Germany, for some years, then moved to London and became associated with a large company that took over the operation. Mom was the head trainer — she was such a good presenter, and she related to people so well.”

In the mid-’90s Bettye and Bill decided to fully retire and return to the States. They first landed in Tennessee so that Bettye could help her mother and aunts through declining health. Then in 2000 they relocated to Springfield and bought a unit in the Elfindale complex here. Bill died in 2021.  

Admiration for Bettye’s style extends to the next generation. For instance, Dr. Erica Ballard, an eye surgeon at Mercy Hospital, says: 

“‘Oma’ – Grandma Bettye – was the type of grandmother who lived in such an intentional way. When she spoke to you, especially about something important, she would stand directly at eye level and speak slowly to make sure I was listening. 

“She freely gave her time and attention. What was important to me was important to her. She was fun and adventurous, and she made our family get-togethers exciting. I am forever grateful, and I know she is with me always.”

Patrick sums it this way:

“Mom managed the family. My dad might’ve been the force in the family — he was, after all, a full colonel in the Army — but my mom was the strength of us. She was the glue that held us together across time, distance and space.”

Mike O'Brien

Mike O’Brien is a longtime newspaper reporter, editor and columnist and is also a college journalism educator in Springfield. To suggest a person who might make a subject for Lives Remembered, email him at LivesRemembered@sgfcitizen.org or obriencolumn@sbcglobal.net. More by Mike O’Brien