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Betty Stavely at her 100th birthday party in Caspar, Calif., with her three sons

Betty Stavely '35 at her 100th birthday party in Caspar, Calif., with her three sons, (from left) Jary Stavely, Tony Stavely and Keith Stavely. Photo: Kathleen Fitzgerald.

Alumna's letters recall 1930s Cornell

Betty Stavely is a true historian.

Writing more than 400 letters to her family over 35 years, the 101-year-old alumna chronicled her life in northern California, her overseas adventures – and her love for Cornell. The letters of Elizabeth "Betty" Williams Stavely '35 have found a permanent home in Cornell University Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Stavely, who turned 101 in August, grew up in New York state and earned a degree in botany in 1935. In the 1930s, there weren't many women in science.

Elizabeth ('Betty') Williams

Elizabeth ('Betty') Williams as a Cornell sophomore in 1932-33. Photo: Provided. See larger image

"There was one course I took in which there were 100 students, and I was one of two women," she says. "I knew it would be harder for a woman to find a job after college, and it was for me – but it wasn't hard to be at Cornell. … I was so entranced with botany and genetics that I was busy taking all kinds of courses that were interesting to me."

After Cornell, Stavely took a job with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and accompanied its head of plant breeding to Cal Tech in fall 1935. She later returned to Connecticut, married and had three boys. When her husband died suddenly in 1973, she moved to Mendocino, Calif., to be with her youngest son and his family.

"I went out to visit the first week in May, and all the wild rhododendrons were in bloom and there were all these interesting wildflowers," she says. "I decided that maybe it would be easier for an old lady – I was 62 or 63 then – to live there, in all that beauty."

Starting in 1978, Stavely's letters trace her life in Northern California, including her membership in the League of Women Voters, and travels to Australia, Europe and the Far East. The letters also reveal her lifelong fascination with the natural world.

The library will preserve her letters in their original form and in an e-book version compiled by Stavely's son Keith.

"My mother is delighted to hear that her letters, both as she originally wrote them and as transformed into 21st-century bits and bytes, will live where they belong – at the university with which she's had an eight-decade love affair," Keith Stavely says.

The e-book also includes appendices with ancestral lore, photos, an account of Betty Stavely's childhood and a history of the family she wrote for her three sons around 1970.

"It's a great tribute to this amazing alumna's love of education and her obvious affection for Cornell," says University Archivist Elaine Engst. "We are thrilled to add Betty's papers to our archives, where they'll stand beside the personal papers of other notable Cornellians."

Stavely mentions the university dozens of times in her letters, including descriptions of visits with roommates, plans for reunions, watching sports events and recollections of the Glenn Miller Orchestra at "one of Cornell's big dances," which women were allowed to attend until 4 a.m.

She has kept in touch with many classmates and attended most of her class reunions; at age 97, Stavely was one of seven attendees at her 75th reunion in 2010.

"I just loved Cornell, and I think of it so fondly," she says. "I enjoyed everything about it; it was such a beautiful place."

Gwen Glazer is the staff writer/editor for Cornell University Library.

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