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Betty Ann Jaffee - A Teacher Whose Lessons Touched Many Lives
Betty Weiner Jaffee lived life by her own rules and conventions. A free spirit and a broad thinker, she was open to the gems of life and made friends with anyone. She was never caught up in the ‘have to’s’ and always thought and acted ‘outside the box.’ She exercised her body and her mind. She was a woman with tremendous passions and beliefs. And the way she died was as inspirational as the way she lived.

Betty grew up in Richmond and met her husband Bob on the steps of TJ (Thomas Jefferson) High School, where all the Jewish kids congregated. Betty went to secretarial school, but college was always her goal, and as soon as she had her children, she enrolled. Her husband says, “She started college with three children at home in diapers. I always thought she was remarkable.”

Her children, husband and friends recall that above all else, Betty was a teacher. Her daughter Debbie Friedman says “Mom was a full-time teacher and that was her love and her passion.” She adds, “She was a great mother and we never felt slighted, but teaching others was her life.” Bob adds that “She loved to learn and never stopped throughout her life.”

Debbie further explains that “so many people go through life looking for a purpose and meaning and she found it early.” From her start as an elementary teacher to her long tenure at Douglas Freeman High School to tutoring and adult education instruction, she loved and respected her students and the learning process.

“And everything was a teaching moment for Mom,” Debbie laughs. Whether it was correcting grammar and spelling in thank you notes from her nieces, or encouraging a recent student to write a letter to the editor, she never missed an opportunity to impart her knowledge. (That student was awarded Correspondent of the Year by the Richmond-Times Dispatch.)

She formed a close bond with many students. One contacted her out of the blue after 30 years to let her know what an impact she had on her life. She said that she only got out of bed in the morning for the sanctuary of school and Mrs. Jaffee’s class. Another student wrote in the Times-Dispatch’s obituary guest book: “I am privileged to have been guided and taught by Mrs. Jaffee. She was one of a couple of teachers and faculty in the crazy, tumultuous sea of my life to see any potential in me where others had looked away. Thank you Mrs. Jaffee, I will always remember you.”

Daughter Elaine Ragone recounts how water was always important to her mother. “We spent summers at the beach. The ocean was very humbling to Mom; it kept her grounded. So much of her related to water. She swam almost every day, and we always had boats as I was growing up.” The water gave her spiritual and physical health which were important parts of the balance of her life.

Balance and spirituality were also key to Betty. Elaine recalls that her mother felt, “Everyday brought up the importance of balance. Don’t work too much, don’t play too much, don’t eat too much. She believed in the balance of the physical world and the spiritual.”

And she approached her illness and her death the same way she approached and embraced her life. Because she was concerned with health and always felt in tune with her body, she “knew” she was very ill before she was even diagnosed. Once she got over the shock of pancreatic cancer and it not being operable, “she still had the most amazing attitude,” Debbie says. She sent an e-mail to friends saying she wanted to see them, but no ‘poor Betty’ attitude was allowed. And her friends came in droves - sitting, laughing, talking, but never pitying. Debbie says her mother didn’t believe that death was an ending so she focused on living not on dying. “She taught us a lot about how to live- through example.”

Both daughters feel blessed that they and brother Charles got to spend the last nine months of her life with their mother. Debbie called it a “gift from G-d” that we had the time to say goodbye. The devoted sisters spent every night at the house and one of them was always there. Bob says Betty never felt sorry for or worried about herself. “She was the bravest person I’ve ever seen.” And she only wished for the girls to “take care of Daddy.”

Close friend Charlotte Weinberg tells of a talk she once gave where she compared Betty to Frank Sinatra and his famous song: “Betty lived her life and she did it her way!”

-Robin Jackson

Copyright 2007. Virginia Jewish Life Magazine.