Bette Belle Smith, ‘Mrs. Modesto,’ slips into history


altA world without Bette Belle Smith is difficult to fathom.

For the death of “Mrs. Modesto” leaves a tremendous void in the city, a void, that, in all likelihood, never will be filled. Like Oprah, Cher or Madonna, Modesto’s home-grown “superstar” was known simply as Bette Belle. No last name was necessary when referring to Modesto’s great philanthropist and greatest volunteer.

She worked tirelessly on behalf of her beloved city. At times, it seemed as if she intended to bring every person who called Modesto home into her great extended family. And the many people she touched over the years loved her for it.

Bette Belle accomplished much in her 88 years.

She helped enrich the lives of all the city’s residents, whether they realize it or not, through her generosity and work with countless civic groups and organizations: Omega Nu, Salvation Army, United Way, Haven Women’s Center, Interfaith Ministries, McHenry Museum, Modesto Symphony Board of Directors, Gallo Center for the Arts Board of Trustees and the Modesto Junior College Foundation.

I’m sure I’ve overlooked a host of other associations and causes that were championed, at one time or another, by the selfless Bette Belle.

But the true measure of a woman or a man includes more than a journalist’s checklist of donations and participation in community groups. Forget the trappings of power; all the stone edifices and political calculations. At the end of the day, what really matters is the lives you have touched and the love you have shared.

Bette Belle had a heart as big, and every bit as boisterous, as the city itself. She truly loved Modesto – and the city and its leaders certainly loved her.

No one who met her ever doubted her sincerity. Even those who knew her only a short time will miss her smile, energy and keen wit.

Bette Belle inspired others to give of themselves.

She loved the arts and music. She was equally at home attending a MoBand summer concert in Graceada Park or a performance of the Modesto Symphony at the Gallo Center for the Arts. Next summer’s MoBand concert series just won’t be the same without her.

Many have said that Bette Belle had a way of making anyone and everyone feel important. But I think it was something else; she made everyone feel they belonged – that their thoughts and ideas, their contributions, however modest, were very much needed and very much appreciated.

I’ve spent most of my adult life working with words, yet I find it difficult – no matter how many times I attempt to string and re-string them into meaningful sentences tonight – to adequately describe what her lifetime of giving has meant to all of us.

So, I will recall her in sounds and images. Every summer, I will hear her in Sousa marches and concert overtures. I will see her in the smiles of children. I will feel her giving spirit every time a volunteer rings a bell at a Salvation Army kettle.

Bette Belle didn’t refer to herself as Mrs. Modesto, but that’s the way many of us saw her. The title certainly fit, didn’t it? She always was there for the city and for us – prodding us to do better, to be better; encouraging us to do what we could to make life better for everyone in Modesto.

When I learned of her Nov. 29 passing, a curious thing happened. I immediately thought of George Bailey, a fictional “everyman” whose small-town life was played out in Frank Capra’s cinematic masterpiece, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Not that Bette Belle was unhappy with her life in Modesto, of course, the way George Bailey became fed up with his life in Bedford Falls. I’m talking about the great truth depicted in that film – that everyone’s life has meaning; that all life is connected. That each of us affects the other, either for good or ill.

Bette Belle showed all of us how much good one life can bring to a community.

In the movie, George Bailey is guided by an angel named Clarence, who earns his wings by helping George understand that Bedford Falls would not be the same without him.

I’m confident Bette Belle won’t face the same heavenly challenge. Mrs. Modesto already has earned her wings.


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