A storybook romance of 78 years ended with the death Elizabeth (Betty) Jane Mesker McMullan, 96. She died peacefully at East Ridge Retirement Village (Three Palms) on May 5, 2017.
“A remarkable and brave person,” said her husband, retired executive editor of the Miami Herald. He paid tribute to her at a family reunion a few years ago, recalling her roles as wife, mother, volunteer Red Cross worker for three decades, world traveler, dinner hostess of the important and not-so-important. “In Betty’s eyes friends were the important ones, and even state governors less so.”
“Intensely loyal and dauntless,” he continued. “Through the hardships of the Great Depression, World War II, the deaths of our two daughters, she carried on.”
Betty was born in big-city Cleveland, Ohio on November 18, 1920. Four years later her family chased the dream of booming little-town Miami where the population was 30,000 if the census-takers were generous. Their wooden home on SW 12th Avenue near 11th Street, then on the outskirts, still stands.
Her fate was sealed eleven years later when she entered Miami Senior High and was assigned to the same homeroom as her future husband, John. They regarded each other warily until Betty invited him to a spin-the-bottle party at her splendid home on Star Island.
“That did it,” said the smitten John. “It was love at first kiss.” Only months later would he learn that her family was as broke as his in Miami’s Great Bust and were mere summer caretakers of the mansion owned by an Ohio senator for whom her mother had been secretary.
After graduation, they went separate ways, John to the University of Georgia and Betty behind the counter in the old Kress Department store on Flagler Street. “She sacrificed her dreams of college to help bolster her family’s finances in the lingering depression,” John recalled.
The romance not only survived but strengthened. Correspondence for nine months was replaced by three months of summer reunion.
With the U.S. now at war, John left university to get in a few months of unpaid on-the-job internship at the Miami Daily News before being drafted. Betty preferred her on-the-job experience to be married and they were wed six months later at Riverside Methodist Church. Betty footed the pastor’s bill, extracting $14, a week’s earnings, from her pay envelope.
In its wisdom, the AirForce decided an aspiring journalist should become a power-operated gun turret specialist and sent John to Denver for training. Betty, not to be outmaneuvered by war lords, followed. She found work in a war plant and lodging with a family relative.
“It was war time,” her husband explained, “and everyone helped each other.”
The pattern was repeated twice more until John was sent overseas to the European theater for the next 27 months. Every month brought a package of tuna fish, home-baked cookies or other goodies. “It wasn’t until after the war that I realized that Betty was giving up her ration stamps for me,” he related.
Back home in Miami, Betty had found work at Consolidated Vultee, an airplane manufacturer on NW 36th Street, and rose to be placed in charge of gas rationing for employees. Upon John’s return, she quit. John had been offered $40 a week to return to The News. Wow! They could live on that, and family was more important.
They raised two beautiful daughters, Pamela and Linda, only to lose both in their twenties. Doctors had warned of a chromosome mismatch that had curtailed further children.
The tragedies only strengthened their bond, their reliance on each other. After Pam’s death they moved to Philadelphia where John was sent as executive editor of the Inquirer and Betty began her Red Cross service by day and frequent dinner hostess at night.
After three years of what Columnist Ann Landers called “wrenching the Inquirer into the twentieth century,” they returned to Miami and the Herald. Betty resumed her role of “presenting the softer side of a hard man” in the words of Gene Miller, the Herald’s two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
After the deaths of their daughters, Betty and John sought escape in world travel over more than three decades. “We didn’t do it all,” she once said, “but we tried.”
Did it work? “It kept us occupied – and together. But I missed the bridge games we had with friends.”
They cruised to China where John climbed the Great Wall and Betty said “no thanks, I’ve walked enough.” Rode the bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo. Drove across the Andes from Buenos Aires to Santiago. Golfed in Scotland, Denmark, Germany and Spain. Marveled at the Great Pyramids in Egypt and were persuaded to sit astride a camel. Not a horsewoman, she gamely bounced atop one to tour the carved city of Petra where John’s horse bolted and left him in the dust.
She struggled across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Israel carrying most of their luggage because John was still limping from his horse’s kick. Then she had to remove her shoes for inspection. “Do I look like a criminal?” she good-humoredly chided the official.
The travels continued. Cruises in the Mediterranean and around the Caribbean. From the fjords in Scandinavia to Hawaii and the sunken USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor and Big Island’s Mauna Loa sprouting fumes from the surrounding ground. To Alaska’s big pipe line near Fairbanks and its crumbling glaciers to Peru’s ancient city of Macchu Pichu high in the Andes to Rio de Janeiro’s Impanema beaches.
To New Zealand looking much like Scotland, to Sydney’s picturesque opera house where the rows were 40 seats long and beware of a man with a kidney problem. To Moscow where the toilets had double tiers. To Berlin when the wall still stood but tourists were permitted to go through Checkpoint Charlie to the Communist side only after sentries inspected the underside of the bus with mirrors.
In their 80s, they’d had enough. John added it up: Six continents. Fifty-seven countries.
Was it all worthwhile?
“Enlightening and a lot of fun,” Betty agreed “But sad too. We were doing things we wished we could have done with Pam and Linda.”
Betty leaves a niece, Joanne Cann, who became like a third daughter, a nephew, Bert Cann, and a host of other nieces and nephews.
Her husband’s final goodbye: “Goodnight, sweet Princess, goodnight. Sleep tight. I shan’t be long.”
(This obituary was written in readiness by Betty’s beloved husband, John McMullan who unexpectedly preceded her in death in July, 2016)
Private services will be held at Stanfill Funeral Home. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations in any amount be made to the American Red Cross or to the Alzheimer’s Foundation.