Betty (Iten) Dretsch

By Dick Dretsch

Special to the Forum

Rev. Martin Luther King once said “The time is always right to do the right thing.”

February is Black History Month and so is this the birthday month of a past resident of Frazee: Betty (Iten) Dretsch who died at 97 would have been 101 years old this year. 

She, like many women during World War II, moved to Washington D.C., as part of the war effort and along with her friend Mercedes Bellefeuille from town rented a nice house with several other women just off Connecticut Avenue, then a street of Embassies.

Betty quickly got a job at the Pentagon as the secretary to a general. She loved her work and loved living in D.C., as during the war it was the place to be, full of young women and men from around the country. Dad said she was smart, funny, and a little shy but dressed beautifully looking like she’d just stepped out of a fashion magazine.

One morning being a little late, she rushed to her bus stop where a bus had stopped at the light. She got on the bus and the driver said,”Ma’am you can’t ride this bus. This is the colored bus.”

Washington, at that time, was considered a southern city and all city buses, restaurants and services were segregated. 

Betty said “Your bus says you’re going to the Pentagon so are you going to the Pentagon?” 

The driver said, “Yes, but—.”

“So since these nice people are going to the Pentagon and so am I, I think the light changed and I know none of us want to be late today,” said Betty. 

The driver was not happy about this but did drive on.

Several days later, Betty got to the large lunch hall late and didn’t see her friends at their usual spot. She wanted to tell them that she was very pleased because the last letter she typed was going to be signed by her boss, the general, but also by President Roosevelt. 

She looked around and didn’t see anyone she knew until she saw a woman about her age who emptied the waste baskets in the offices in her area who was sitting by herself.

Betty went over and said hello and put her lunch tray on the table. (She was aware of the racial policy.)

The young woman who suddenly looked very nervous, said “Miss Iten, you can’t sit here. We’re not allowed to eat with white people and your sitting here is making everyone nervous. This is the South and you don’t understand what could happen. We could both lose our jobs”.

Betty said “Isn’t that ridiculous,” but got up to go sit at a table by herself. 

But as she was about to walk away the woman said, “A friend of mine was on the bus that you got on the other day and thank you for doing that.”

Betty did the right thing by her actions. She thought that as decent people this separation, this segregation was as she said “ridiculous.” 

Almost 20 years later, in the early 1960’s, we went on a vacation to Chicago and Mackinac Island. After leaving the Museum of Natural History, Mom had Dad drive through part of south side Chicago. It was a very hot day and people were on stoops and fire escapes trying to get some air and shade. We had never seen this very poor urban landscape before and were very quiet. Mom turned around at one point and said, “It’s only an accident of birth that you are in this very nice car and not outside in this heat. You had nothing to do with it so never treat anyone differently than you would like to be treated.”

That was exactly the right thing to say at that moment, teaching us a pivotal lesson as no other time or circumstance could as effectively. 

Now you know a little more about Betty, the lady you might have known at the school library, at the lake or just around town.

These are just a couple examples of her stepping up when circumstances provided options. I spoke with her many times about the first two and the third I experienced that hot summer day. I was fortunate to have these events as signposts in my life.

Whether with homeless people, immigrants or others who are in need of our help, we can be grateful for our unexpected encounters, as they provide us the chance to be the good people, the good Christians we like to think we are. 

That’s doing the right thing at the right time.