Betty Jane Rockwell

January 12, 2013|By JANET HEIM |
  • Betty Dunn was 17 in this photo taken in 1948.
Submitted photo

Betty Rockwell was a survivor. She outlived two husbands, the first who died of cancer just weeks before the birth of their child, leaving Betty a widow at age 18.

They met through Betty’s sister, Kate, who was married to Jack Morris’ brother. Jack was a horse trainer at Hagerstown Raceway and was 29 when he died.

“She definitely was an independent woman, even when married. She had no qualms about being able to take care of herself,” said youngest son, Edward “Ed” Rockwell of Hagerstown. “I just feel she was dedicated to both her husbands and her children 100 percent.”

“She taught us to never depend on anyone else, to be self-sufficient,” said daughter, Denise Grove of Hagerstown. “We’ve all got good lives because of what our mother taught us.”

Betty was one of five children in her family to survive to adulthood. Two siblings died in infancy and one died as a young child.

She was a tomboy compared to Kate, growing up with three brothers. She quit high school to work to help support the family, earning her general equivalency diploma when her youngest child, Ed, was in middle school.

“I remember Washington Street Middle School was where she went. We’d go with her in the evenings and do our homework,” Denise said. “When she got her GED, she was really proud of herself, and we were proud, too.”

Betty’s three children graduated from North Hagerstown High School.

“Education was very important to Mom,” said oldest son, Robert “Bob” Morris of Sacramento, Calif. “She wanted her kids to get an education and be in a stable environment.”

After her first husband died, Betty worked at the Hagerstown Shoe Factory and the Arrow Shirt Factory in Pennsylvania. She also waited tables, but didn’t think it was a good fit.

“She said she wasn’t a very good waitress,” Ed said.

“Only because my mother wouldn’t take lip from anybody,” Bob said.

Bob said his mother worked two shifts when he was young, with her parents and his Aunt Kate helping take care of him. She married Jack Rockwell in 1959, whom she met while waitressing.

Denise was born in 1960, followed by Ed four years later.

Not long after they were married, the Rockwells bought a house on Michigan Avenue, where they lived for more than 20 years. In 1983, they moved to a home on Red Oak Drive, about five years before Jack Rockwell’s death. It was there that Betty lived for the rest of her life.

When Ed was a teenager, Betty worked at a children’s clothing store near Hagerstown’s Public Square.

Betty was involved with her children’s activities, from Little League and Scouts for the boys, to color guard for Denise and other sporting endeavors.

“She never missed a game,” Ed said.

She also went to her seven grandchildren’s sporting events as much as possible. There also are three great-grandchildren.

Ed remembers breaking his arm during a summer PONY League practice while Betty was at work. He didn’t tell her because he wanted to go swimming with the team after practice.

When Betty came home from work to find Ed lying on the couch with ice on his arm and later discovered his arm was broken, she wasn’t happy with Ed’s coach, who was his future wife’s father.

“He got an earful,” Ed said.

Betty loved cross-stitch, played softball in her younger days and was in a duckpin bowling league for many years. She knew most of Ed’s coaches because she had grown up with them.

“My Little League coach said she was a better ballplayer than I was and half the kids were,” Ed said.

After Jack Rockwell’s death, Betty got a job at J.C. Penney.

One of her co-workers had been a friend years ago and they rekindled their friendship, which led to card and domino games with a group of women Denise referred to as the “Golden Girls.” Betty was the “grumpy lady that carried the purse,” Denise said.

“If she didn’t like something, she’d tell you. They took it in stride,” Denise said. “That’s just Betty. It’s who she was.”

Betty was a strict mother, but with her children’s best interests at heart.

“She spoke her mind,” Ed said.

“She was always fair. What she was trying to teach you was the necessities of life,” Bob said. “She treated us all equal. I can’t say enough about her.”

“That’s how we learned to raise our children,” Denise said.

Betty got involved with organizations that were near to her heart. Her husbands, both named Jack, were veterans. First husband Jack Morris served in World War II; Jack Rockwell was in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. 

That prompted her to get involved with the Funkstown American Legion Auxiliary after Jack Rockwell’s death, which led to volunteering at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

“She’s very patriotic and felt veterans didn’t get a fair shake. The VA — she loved it,” Bob said.

“Even after her heart surgery, she was never home,” Ed said.

Ed said he learned years later that Betty had a miscarriage after he was born, which explained why she started volunteering with the March of Dimes.

Betty was known for her immaculate housekeeping.

“The funny thing was, my mom was a clean addict. Her house was always spotless,” Bob said. “Right after she moved in here (Red Oak Avenue), they called the living room the Betty Rockwell Museum because it was rarely used.”

“We never used the fireplace because it would be too dirty,” Ed said. 

Bob remembers coming back to visit from California when his three children were young. The children couldn’t seem to find the light switch without getting their hands all over the wall.

The next time Bob’s family visited, Betty had taped paper towels around the light switches, but to no avail.

Denise said after her mother would vacuum a room, she’d ask them not to walk on it for a while to keep it free of footprints. Just to annoy Betty, one of her sons would put his fingerprints all over the newly cleaned refrigerator exterior.

“We carried on a lot and aggravated Mom,” Denise said. “We’ve always been a jokester group of people.”

Betty was not a big shopper, having grown up with only the necessities. She didn’t like clutter and took good care of what she had.

“She kept a clean house. She kept us in line,” Denise said. “We knew who ruled the roost, in a good way.”

Betty was on the verge of her third heart attack when she landed in the hospital for a triple bypass in January 2008. Although the surgery slowed her down a bit, she “danced her little heart out” at the March 2008 wedding in North Carolina of one of her granddaughters, Denise said.

At her doctor’s prompting, Betty quit smoking after more than 40 years.

She lived almost a year after her lung cancer diagnosis in late January 2012. Ed said her doctor said her cancer was the kind nonsmokers get.

Despite the toll that radiation treatments were taking on Betty, she was able to stay in her home with the help of Denise and Ed and occasional outside help.

“One of the things she worried about going through lung cancer was she didn’t want to be a burden on her kids,” Bob said.

“She wanted to stay at home,” Ed said.

Her children cared for her in appreciation for all she had done for them.

“She was just a very compassionate, passionate woman,” Bob said.

Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Betty Jane Rockwell, who died Jan. 5 at the age of 81. Her obituary was published in the Jan. 6 edition of The Herald-Mail.

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