Indie Flashback: Betty White Reflects on Her “Golden” Years

Me and Betty White. Photo by Allen Bourgious.

Today would’ve been the 100th birthday of the incomparable comic genius Betty White, who passed away on December 31st, 2021. Twelve years ago, I had the tremendous honor of interviewing her when she was the guest of honor at a fundraiser for the therapeutic riding center located in Chemung, Illinois. The interview and subsequent fundraising dinner took place in downtown Chicago, so I naturally assumed I would barely get a word in edgewise. Luckily, the majority of the Windy City press was distracted by Rod Blagojevich’s appearance at ComicCon that day, which resulted in me and a couple other journalists having Betty all to ourselves for an unforgettable conversation. When I was invited to pose for a picture with her afterward, I told her, “Everyone my age wants you to be either their grandma or their girlfriend,” to which she replied, “Oh, do hold onto that, dear!”

Here is the complete two-part article, which was originally published in the September 1st, 2010 issue of The Woodstock Independent. 

On the quiet, sun-drenched morning of Aug. 21, an event occurred that was truly a horse of a different color. Betty White, the legendary TV actress and animal-rescue advocate, arrived at BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Educational Center, 7319 Maxon Road, Chemung. She was there to visit a pony, Butterscotch, who survived multiple life-threatening ailments thanks to her generous donations. That evening, White was the guest of honor at a fundraising dinner benefiting the center, held at the University Club of Chicago, 76 E. Monroe St., Chicago. 

The center first came to the attention of White through her association with BraveHearts’ Vice-Chair Dayle Marsh and General Counsel Daniel Marsh Jr. who served with her on the board of directors of the Morris Animal Foundation. Upon invitation from the Marshes, White agreed to visit BraveHearts in order to meet the horse she sponsored, as well as learn more about the equine therapy programs offered at the 20-acre center, including its therapeutic riding and carriage driving programs for disabled veterans. 

Marge Gunnar, founder and executive director of BraveHearts, said the center took off with the involvement of her husband, Dr. Rolf Gunnar, M.D., who serves as head of property management and acting treasurer of the board of directors. The center serves 100 clients a week, each of whom has physical, emotional and/or psychological challenges, including autism, neurological disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, paralysis and visual impairments. Marge Gunnar said the idea for BraveHearts came to her after surviving ovarian cancer and finding therapeutic value from time spent with her horse. 

“One of the phrases that my husband has coined, and we found it to be very true, is that from a psychological standpoint, a horse doesn’t ask any questions,” Gunnar said. “They don’t care what’s going on in your head or in your body. They’re just there for you. It’s very empowering to have some control over and partner with an animal that is so large. The physical aspect of the therapy comes with the ambulation of the horse’s movement. The horse is like a three-dimensional platform. You put a person on a horse who doesn’t have good ambulation skills. Through the movement of the horse, you start to build core muscle strength and balance, because the horse’s ambulation mimics human walk.” 

Betty White meets Lucky, a Clydesdale donated by Double lucky Ranch, Wadsworth. Pictured in back are Tom Chambers and Marge Gunnar. Photo by Allen Bourgious.

The veterans program at BraveHearts began in 2008 and is headed by Tom Chambers, a Vietnam veteran and the center’s equine programs development administrator. Chambers hosted the fundraising event at the University Club and spoke at length about the center’s history and its multiple services. 

“The therapy in this place is widespread, whether it’s riding with an autistic child or a 60-year-old vet from Vietnam,” said Chambers. “The horse is the nucleus to the atom. The people that get therapy here are people with all sorts of disabilities, both emotional and physical, veterans suffering from things like PTSD to traumatic head injury, to those with missing limbs. I watch very carefully the other people, including myself, who get therapy out of being a part of this. It goes back to something Samuel Clemens said, ‘There’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of horse.’” 

“We once had a veteran who had such severe agoraphobia, fear of crowds, that he didn’t leave his house for eight years,” Rolf Gunnar said. “After being with us, he became outgoing. His wife told us, ‘You’ve given me my husband back.’” 

Several veterans were in attendance at the dinner and were featured in a video edited by the center’s new president and chief operating officer, Meggan Hill-McQueeney. An estimated 200 people attended the event, which raised between $30,000 and $35,000. 

When White took the stage, she voiced her enthusiastic support for the center, and closed her speech by saying, “You have all been so generous that I’ve decided to throw in another thousand dollars and encourage others to do the same.” 

Upon hearing this, the room erupted in applause, and White soon found herself being serenaded by Sarah Newland, program director of therapeutic riding at BraveHearts, who sang a song reportedly written by Butterscotch. It was entitled, “Thank You For Being My Friend.” 

INTERVIEW WITH BETTY WHITE

Sometimes all it takes is a Snickers commercial and a Facebook page to jettison a celebrity back to superstardom. That’s exactly what has happened to veteran actress Betty White, who, at age 88, is enjoying an extraordinary resurgence in popularity, a fact she regards with bewildered amusement. The truth is, White has never stopped working. After making a name for herself in the realms of modeling, theatre and radio, White headlined her first sitcom, 1952’s “Life with Elizabeth,” where she became one of the first women in television history to have complete creative control both in front of and behind the camera. Her 65-year career in show business has garnered her five Emmy awards, the latest of which she won the same evening as the BraveHearts benefit, for her recent guest appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” 

After several decades in the business, White has found herself on top of the world. In the words of Elka, her new character on the hit show, “Hot in Cleveland,” “It took me 88 years to realize I got game!” The Independent participated in an interview with White, whose support of BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Educational Center in Chemung was recently punctuated with a fundraiser for the organization in which she was the guest of honor.

During the interview, White reflected on the two great loves of her life, while demonstrating her transcendent mastery of deadpan comic timing. 

You’ve done so much great work for animal health and welfare. What therapeutic role do animals play in your own life? 

I’m the luckiest old broad on two feet. My life is divided absolutely in half—half show business and half animal business, the two things I love the most. I always say I have to stay in show business to pay for my animal business. I’ve loved them since the womb, and my mother and dad were the same. It’s such a privilege to be in this business where you can help them a little bit; just by your silly celebrity, you can get people to listen a little. Thank you for saying animal health and welfare. I’m not into animal activism, I just want to make life better for the animals we love. 

Out of all the shows you’ve worked on, which do you consider your favorite?

It’s a tough choice between “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Golden Girls,” because I love both of them, and we were so privileged to have that kind of magnificent writing. You don’t get that kind of writing ever, so I was really thrilled about that. But “The Golden Girls” somehow just lasted and hung around. Where can four old ladies find an audience that has perpetuated? Again it goes back to the writing. … We can help a good show, but we can’t save a bad show. [laughs] 

Your most well-known characters are the cheerfully dim-witted Rose Nylund on “the Golden Girls,” and Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” who was— 

I was the neighborhood nymphomaniac, and I enjoyed every minute of it. A lot of people say that Rose was dumb. Rose was not dumb, she was terminally naive. 

Which character do you consider closer to yourself?

They used to ask my husband that. Well, the happy homemaker, Sue Ann Nivens, she could do everything. She could sew, she could bake. … Mary’s friend, Phyllis, got suspicious when her husband’s clothes were cleaner than when he left home. That’s how she knew he and Sue Ann were having an affair. It was one of those lovely characters, but I can’t choose between Sue Anne and Rose. They used to ask Alan, “How close is Sue Anne to Betty?” He said, “They’re actually the same person, but Betty can’t cook.” 

How has your perception of television evolved over the years?

I don’t think television has changed, I think the audience has changed. When I started in television, it was that new box in the corner that people were suddenly walking around on. Now the audience has heard every joke and seen every story, and they know exactly where we’re going before we start. That’s a hard audience to write for and surprise. I get a little short-tempered with some of the young performers these days, who have the world on a string and they don’t appreciate it. They don’t know how many people would give their eyeteeth to do what we do. You better show up as a professional, you better know your lines and you better behave yourself. Some of them just toss it out and throw it away by abusing their privileges. I know that makes me sound like a stuffy old lady, but I am a stuffy old lady! [laughs.] 

Betty White answers questions at a press conference held before the fundraising dinner at the University Club of Chicago, 76 E. Monroe St., Chicago. Photo by Allen Bourgious.

Does age give you permission to say whatever you want?

I milk it for all it’s worth. I’ve found growing old — now I say old, I used to say older, but I can’t grow much older than I am now [laughs] — I love the experience, the fact that you’ve been there, done that, but you’ve learned something from each experience. It doesn’t mean you have to get stuffy. You can keep your sense of humor, I hope, and enjoy what life’s about. I was so fortunate to have the mother and father that I did, because they both had delicious, wicked senses of humor. My dad was a traveling man, and he’d bring jokes home. He’d never explain them to me. I’d just either catch on or I didn’t. But he’d say, “Sweetheart, you can take that one to school. I wouldn’t take that joke to school.” 

Are you dating anyone? Are there any younger men in your life? 

Do you know any? No, I’m not a cougar, as much as I would enjoy it. But I must tell you, a man with a sense of humor or a love of animals or both, preferably, can get to me a lot. I might flirt across a room, but I don’t think too many people are interested in a lady as old as I am, but if you’d like, I could give you my number. 

How do you maintain such a high energy level?

I’m blessed with good health, bottom line, so the energy doesn’t give up. I’ve had a long, busy, glorious day with the therapeutic horses, and it was one of those special days that you’ll keep for forever. So that stimulates you, that gives you the energy. If I complain about anything, I want you to throw me out that window over there. 

How did you first become acquainted with BraveHearts?

I’ve been with the Morris Animal Foundation for 47 years. We’re a health organization funding humane studies in specific health problems of dogs, cats, horses, zoo and wildlife. Two of our board members, Dayle and Dan Marsh, are very involved with BraveHearts. I have worked with the therapeutic riding group in California, and it’s such a magnificent program, not just to help the health and exercise of children in this riding program, but to form that bond with the animal itself. That will last them a lifetime. They will never feel the same about animals. Dayle and Dan asked me if I would come back for a day, and I jumped at the chance. We’ve had a glorious day. I’ve had my arms around a lot of horses today, one in particular, Butterscotch. 

How are you enjoying “Hot in Cleveland”?

I’m loving it. I have the backbone of a jellyfish. I said I would do a guest spot on the pilot, providing I wouldn’t be involved should it get picked up for series, because with my schedule, I couldn’t do another series. We did the pilot and got picked up in three weeks. Sometimes you do something in February and don’t hear your fate until maybe May. It got picked up for 10 shows, and they asked if I would do some more. I said, “Well, that’s not arranged.” Guess who did all 10 shows? Just before we broke for the summer, they picked us up for 20 more episodes. Guess who’s going to do all those? [laughs] I’m having such a good time. 

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