The story of my friend Betty Alexander will cause your jaw to drop at times, and for you to wonder how she was able to move forward.
Betty was one of 12 children in a very poor family in Florence, Ala. Every day was a challenge, including the flood of 1937 that sent her to a refugee camp in Birmingham, and the time their house was burned down.
To top that off was her marriage story! Working in a restaurant just shy of 15 years old, a young man a few years older than her took a liking to her. He would come in and ask her for a date. At first she said no, but then she got to liking him so she told him that her and her friends would go to the ‘picture shows’ (movies for those younger readers of you) for several hours. “We would just go from one movie to the next,” she recalled for me. “That is just what you did in those days.”
He started coming along and started seeing her.
“In three months he talked me into marrying him,” said Betty. “He said we could go across the state line to Iuka, Mississippi and get married and be back by the time I had to go to work. So we went there and paid $5 to get married. They found someone to be a witness. We then went and told my mother and got an apartment for $5 a month rent. He was 23 and had been in the Navy. He had been around awhile and I was so impressionable.”
She told me it was not a good marriage, but through it she showed incredible love for her five children, and would do anything for them, which made what happened years later so very, very hard.
In 1994, after having moved to northern Indiana, her boy Steve was run over by a drunk driver. About the time she had recovered and was moving forward, her boy Jimmy was killed by a drunk driver in 1998.
“The pain of the loss is not definable and incomparable,” she says. “You will think that you are losing your mind and sometimes wish that you could, because then the hurt would be over.”
Crushed to her knees in the game of life, this is a woman that found the strength to go forward, go back to college in her 60’s, and now work for a non-profit in her 80’s.
I first heard from Betty in 2005 just before I left television news to go full time into delivering motivational programs to organizations. She called me at the CBS station I was working at and wanted to know how to contact then Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy. She had heard the Dungy’s had lost their teenage son to suicide, and wanted to get them a copy of the book she had written after her two sons had been killed.
We did, and ever since I have tried to share Betty’s remarkable life story. My church where I live in South Bend, IN has a monthly inspirational program where I interview a guest on a set. Betty was our guest recently and as I looked out at the audience I couldn’t ever recall seeing more riveted people. The picture below was taken before the program that night.
In 1994, her grown son Steve asked if he could move back in with her for awhile. He had put his suitcase at the foot of the bed in the room he would be staying in. Later, he went out to run errands and was walking across a street when a drunk driver hit and killed him.
Betty was beyond crushed. After the funeral she would hold his bathrobe in her arms. She didn’t move the suitcase. She went to the cemetery every day. Her emotions were all over the place.
Betty told me one thing that we all can remember for when those close to us lose a loved one. While she was happy her friends from church and all over brought her lots of food, what she really wanted was for people to spend time with her. She wanted to talk about Steve, and have someone to listen to. Some nights she would dial 0 and ask the operator if she could please talk with her. While most said they couldn’t, one operator would talk with her and listen.
Betty went through challenging financial times. One day, in 1995, out of the blue, came an envelope from the Indianapolis Colts pro football team, located three hours south of her in Indy. In it was a check for $500 from Colts owner Jim Irsay. How he knew about her, she had no idea.
Betty missed her boy so much. Steve had called her every day of his life to speak to her or leave a message. He would be at a party and his girlfriend would ask who he was calling. He would say his Momma, to tell her again how much she meant to him.
At the sentencing of the man who had killed Steve, Betty went to the man and handed him a picture of her son. “I want to give you this to put in your billfold,” she said, as he never looked up. “Every time you think of driving when you have been drinking, look at this picture of my son. I hope it will keep you from drinking and driving.”
Betty told me she was able to forgive him, but the pain of losing Steve became stronger. Every day for a year she went to the cemetery. She had always kept a journal of good and bad things in her life, but after he died she started another one filled with her anger about everything. She said it wasn’t long before it was like she heard a voice saying to burn that one. She went to Steve’s grave with a bowl and set the journal on fire.
“People driving by thought I was having a cook out,” she said, smiling.
As the journal burnt, she said she instantly felt lighter, so much to the point when she got home she stepped on the scale. “No pounds lost,” she said, “but the weight of the negativity was gone!”
July, 1998. Four years later. It was a stormy night when Betty heard the knock at the door. “Police,” she heard. When she saw the look on his face as he tried to speak, with tears streaming down his face, Betty started shouting, “No, no, no!” over and over. She moved around the house trying to lose him.
Her son Jimmy was walking across the street when a drunk hit him and killed him. This was three blocks east of her home. Steve had been killed three blocks west. They buried Jimmy four years to the day from when Steve was killed.
“I felt as though I was ripped open,” said Betty, “just bleeding to death.”
Betty looked for the book she had written after Steve’s death. “I see the words in black and white in Steve’s book,” she said. “God helped me then. God carried me and made it bearable for me. God got me through and gave me strength. Because I lived by faith the first time, I know without a doubt I will survive Jimmy’s death.”
This woman is a battler, always fighting for her boys even after they were gone. Where their plots are located (photo above) at the cemetery is a poorly lit area. Young people would go out there at night and party, leaving trash. Betty bought a portable light that actives at night and took it out there. When she went back the next day, it had been stolen.
She went to the Electric Company and they said they would have to come across the street with live wires. They didn’t think it would be cleared as certain City officials would have to sign off on it. They told her not to expect much. She smiled and got the paperwork and went to the Mayor’s office. To her surprise, every official needed happened to be in his office. They authorized it without hesitation.
There was been light over the graves ever since, and to this day Betty still pays $8 a month to keep it that way!
As Betty had found the strength to forgive the man who killed Steve, she did with Jimmy too. She went to the local mall and looked and looked for a card. She found one to send to him, that had this message:
You’re In My Prayers
God will give you the courage to carry on.
The strength to handle whatever comes.
And if there’s something I can do for you, I want to help in anyway I can.
So please remember that you’re never alone, For God cares, and so do I.
Through all of this, Betty started attending a faith based University in her 60’s. She graduated at age 68 and today at age 80 still does weddings and funerals and counsels those hurting. She is a foster grandparent for a non profit called REAL Services. She is a mentor and tutor for at risk/special needs children and youth in her community, volunteering 20 hours a week in local organizations such as schools, Head Start and day care centers.
In my keynotes and seminars, I sometimes say that the most content people out there are those that have or are going through incredible challenges, and yet still serve others. This is what Betty feels about that:
“I know you don’t feel like doing anything at a time like this, but helping others is like medicine for the heart. It helps you to get your mind off yourself.”
In my motivational presentations and writings, I try to inspire you with stories of incredible people like Betty. If she can move forward and do all that she has done and continues to do, by golly we can overcome our challenges.
I have been blessed to know Betty for about ten years. She is always looking to help others. If you or someone you know would like to talk to her or if you would like to get her book “Tomorrow Will Start Without You,’ shoot me an email and I will get you her contact information.
Charlie Adams is the author of 4 books on positive attitude and peak performance, including 2013′s “How to Build a Positive Attitude and KEEP the Darn Thing!!” and “Stoke the Fire Within.” His books and motivational keynotes and seminars are designed to make sure events reach their objectives and to help create winning cultures. Email him at: Charlie@stokethefirewithin.com.