November 24, 2014
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First Impressions
BETTY GARRISON

I met Betty Garrison only once.

Once was enough to be thoroughly impressed. Betty makes that impression within minutes of meeting her. Her life story reads like a New York Times bestseller, and yet, she and her husband Mark are two of the most modest and warmest individuals I’ve ever met.

If you asked them, I have no idea how they would describe me. Pushy and overstays her welcome are two thoughts that come to my mind, seeing as I asked them about a million questions during that one meeting and sipped my coffee rather slowly, hoping to prolong our interview. Only about a quarter of the information I learned made it to print.

I felt instantly comfortable in their home, and I’m so glad they indulged me that afternoon; Betty passed away last week after a long battle with cancer.

When my boss, a longtime friend of the Garrisons, told me Betty had been sick, I was astonished. When I interviewed her last spring, I hadn’t gotten that impression at all. In fact, I had been surprised at her age, 79 – she seemed much younger. I think it was her smile. At no point in our conversation did Betty’s health come up, and I certainly never thought to ask. I had been far too preoccupied gleaning the details of her travels abroad.

A farm girl from Indiana, Betty left rural life behind and spent 25 years in the Foreign Service with Mark, her boyfriend-turned-husband from back home. They raised four children overseas, giving them the kind of real world experience most adults never encounter, never mind toddlers. When I asked Betty if it was difficult raising kids so far from home, in places like the Soviet Union that differed so much from the Midwestern environment she had grown up in, she shrugged. She didn’t think it was any harder or easier than raising a family in America, but she did see the value of bringing up cultured, open-minded individuals. She had an ease about her that made me feel like I could ask her anything. She clearly wasn’t as impressed with her accomplishments as I was.

When the Garrisons returned to the states, they established a foreign policy research center at Brown University.

Like I said, they make an impression.

They built not one, but two dream houses, drawing up much of the plans themselves first for their home in Warwick and last year for a bungalow overlooking the water just over the border in Cranston. Technically, it was their downsizing that was the cause for a story. I was writing a PrimeTime piece about aging in place, and the Garrisons were in the process of building the bungalow, equipped with all the elements of universal design that would allow them to stay living independently for longer. Always good sports, they even agreed to pose for a photo in front of their new home, dressed as the somber couple from “American Gothic.” Before meeting them, I wanted to highlight how their approach serves as an important lesson for aging Rhode Islanders reluctant to make changes to account for age.

It was the unconventional path their lives took, however, that had me transfixed.

They’re the kind of adventures and achievements you see on the big screen. And even in retirement, the Garrisons defied traditional expectations. They bought land on Warwick Neck and planted a blueberry farm, maintaining the eight acres largely by themselves. They found joy in the work and in the relationships with regular customers. And when they decided they could no longer maintain the farm, they paid the land its due respect by selling the development rights to the state, ensuring that the land would stay open, no matter who took over the business. A gift to the city and the state, to be sure, but also a reflection of the type of people the Garrisons are. They see the big picture. They’re not preoccupied with their own lives. It’s a rare quality nowadays, but spending even just an hour in their living room served as a reminder of living well and living generously, and also of life’s opportunities, just waiting to be seized.

If I can achieve even a modicum of the success that Betty did, or am one day able to expose my own children to such rich, diverse, extraordinary experiences, then I’ll consider myself lucky.

I already do consider myself lucky, for the opportunity to tell her story, and for that one warm afternoon overlooking the Bay, with a couple who showed me how to make my own rules.

A memorial for Betty Garrison will be held Friday at Woodbury Union Church in the Conimicut section of Warwick. The service is at 11 a.m.


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