Betty Stein, who spent decades teaching, writing newspaper columns and promoting speakers to raise awareness about the Jewish community, died Friday night at her southwest Fort Wayne home with family by her side. She was 102.
Betty Edlavitch was born in Fort Wayne on Dec. 10, 1916 — four years before U.S. women had even earned the right to vote!
In 1939 she married Curt Stein and became Betty Stein, a name well-known throughout Fort Wayne. On Dec. 10, 2016, Stein, her family and many friends celebrated her 100th birthday with a bash fit for a centenarian.
Throughout the span of her 102 years, Stein witnessed some of the most extraordinary, significant events of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st century. Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, a man’s steps on the moon, Nixon’s resignation, the U.S. bicentennial, the launch of the World Wide Web, and the dawn of a new millennium.
Remembered in a Facebook post by granddaughter Wendy Stein for being a progressive thinker, her granddaughter wrote, “One of her favorite topics was to review all of the discoveries and improvements in the past hundred years and try to figure out which was the best.”
Betty Stein’s married life was fairly traditional for women of that era. After graduating from Central High School at the age of 16, she studied social work at The Ohio State University and earned a degree in 1937, married Curt in 1939, had their son John in 1943 and their daughter Rena in 1948 and was a stay-at-home mom.
Once the children were grown, Stein pursued her own interests and passions. She earned a master’s degree from Saint Francis College when her children were in college. She started teaching at Fairfield Junior High in 1965 when she was 49.
In 1979 she became curriculum coordinator at Memorial Park Middle School, one of the first fine arts magnet schools in Fort Wayne. She retired from Fort Wayne Community Schools in 1981 because of an age rule, according to Wendy Stein, and was immediately hired back as a consultant. She continued working part time at Memorial Park until May 2018. She was 101 when she retired.
From 1982 to 2018 she wrote her By the Way columns for The News-Sentinel every other Tuesday. She also wrote Afterwards and Page Turner columns, interviews of community members and what they were reading, for the paper. In August, Glo magazine printed one of the 102-year-old’s On Her Nightstand columns about what a retired teacher was reading.
She loved history, art, music, theater and books, all of which were frequent fodder for her columns. She was at the first performance of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.
Stein was a passionate advocate for the Allen County Public Library, and served as head of the Friends of the Allen County Public Library group and was chairwoman of the library’s building corporation. In 1983 she was named as the first female president of her temple, Congregation Achduth Vesholom. She was the first female member of the Allen County Alcohol Beverage Commission and became chairwoman. She served on the commission for 20 years.
At age 98, Stein passed the leadership of her temple’s Holocaust Education Committee to her daughter, Rena Black, being quoted on the website as saying, “We must get people to remember, but also to live by it. When you see injustice, don’t just look at it. It’s part of Judaism, an imperative. You’ve got to fight against stuff like that and do something about it. The Holocaust committee’s job is to remind people so something like this is never repeated, to learn that you have to speak up about injustice.”
Her accomplishments were often recognized with awards. In 1996, then-Gov. Evan Bayh named her a Sagamore of the Wabash. The award is given to those who have rendered a distinguished service to the state. In 2014 the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and St. Mary’s Catholic Church gave her the Father Tom Light of Christ Award for her contributions to education. That same year the University of Saint Francis bestowed upon her an honorary doctorate in human letters.
And in 2010, at the age of 93, she received Tapestry—A Day for Women’s Dedication Award, given each year to a female role model whose positive activities have encompassed all aspects of her life.
Also an author
Author and former News-Sentinel sportswriter Blake Sebring struck up a friendship with Stein about 25 years ago when he overheard a comment she made in the N-S library, where she would sit at the microfilm machine and do research for her columns. She was talking about not having anybody to go with her to see one of the Harry Potter movies. He offered to accompany her.
Thus began a tradition and a friendship. Sebring estimates he’s probably seen 400 movies with Stein over the years.
“I let Betty pick the movies,” he said. “You can’t tell Betty what to do.”
He says that with affection, referring to her indomitable will. “I can’t think of anybody who’s lived life longer and on her terms.”
As an experienced author who has published several books, Sebring kept needling Stein to compile some of her best columns into a book. She finally agreed and, with Sebring’s help, “By the Way, the Columns of Betty E. Stein” was published in late 2018.
The book includes a variety of Stein’s best columns, including some of Sebring’s favorites, such as Steins comparison of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. “It was absolutely perfect,” he said.
Her newspaper columns were a perennial favorite with readers. “Betty got more letters from readers than I’ve ever heard of,” Sebring said. “Positive letters.”
“Not only were they entertaining, they had an impact. “Every time I read one of her columns again, I wonder at her courage to share her life through them, even when they didn’t always portray her in the greatest light,” Sebring said. “She made us all smarter and better. How many people in this world can we say that about?”
Loved the arts, too
Beth Sheets has known Stein since 1968. They met through Sheets’ husband, who was a consultant for Fort Wayne Community Schools at the time. As it turned out, the Sheets family had moved into a home in Sherwood Terrace, near Stein’s home, then on Old Mill Road.
“She was the first to say ‘welcome to the neighborhood,’” Sheets said.
Stein was known for her kindness, but maybe even more, for her sense of humor. Sheets recalled a dinner with her husband and Stein some years ago when Casa D’Angelo was still on Fairfield Avenue. Sheets’ husband was teasing Stein, and to retaliate she took a teaspoon of water and flung it at him. However, he ducked, and the water landed on a very displeased diner at the next table — who happened to be someone who worked at the newspaper.
Sheets also remembers Stein for her love of arts, poetry and the opera. Sheets’ son sings opera, and Stein “has supported him right down the line.”
Sheets also mentioned Stein’s sense of style. “It was so important to her to look good,” Sheets said. Stein also was known for her earrings, which usually were as big as her personality.
But Stein’s biggest contribution, in Sheets’ eyes, is what she gave to so many others. “I feel that her legacy in part has been the children she taught, the people who she has influenced,” Sheets said, adding, “she pushes for people to be the best they can be.”
Helped others grow
Jody Habayeb’s description of Stein sounds a lot like Sheets’.
“Her whole thing was about nurturing other people,” she said. “She just wanted each person to understand their potential.”
Habayeb was head of The News-Sentinel library when she met Stein. “We became quite close working in that small space,” she said. Soon Habayeb became family friends with Stein’s children. And Stein got to know Habayeb’s family, even filling in as a “grandma” once for Habayeb’s son on a Grandparents Day when the real grandparents couldn’t be there.
Stein did not suffer fools gladly, Habayeb said. She believed everyone was responsible for living up to his or her potential.
Habayeb credits Stein with boosting her own self-esteem. She had never been on any boards, but with Stein’s cheerleading, Habayeb ended up being on two. Stein also taught Habayeb how to accept compliments gracefully.
“She was the epitome of grace and kindness,” Habayeb said. “I’m blessed to have had her as a friend.”
Memorials for opera, books
Stein is survived by her children, John Stein and Rena (Don) Black; granddaughters Lisa (Scott) Fybush, Wendy Stein, Susan (Patty) Engle and Lisa Engle Aichele; great-grandchildren Ari and Eli Fybush and Libby and Christian Aichele; daughter-in-law Fran Adler; stepgranddaughter Janet Black, and several extended family members and friends like family.
A private graveside service for family was to precede a community memorial service at 2 p.m. Aug. 15 at Congregation Achduth Vesholom, 5200 Old Mill Road. Calling was planned for 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 14 and 3 to 5 p.m. Aug. 15 at Congregation Achduth Vesholom. Memorials may be made to Heartland Sings! Memorial Park Opera Fund and Congregation Achduth Vesholom Holocaust Education fund, “or just ask someone to tell you about a book they’re reading. She’d like that,” according to her obituary.