Honoring Betty Kelly

A longtime Master Gardener, Betty Kelly died March 30, 2022. Her family and JCMG friends gathered to celebrate her life on May 22 at one of her favorite places—Plum Grove, the historic residence of the first governor of the Territory of Iowa, Robert and Friendly Lucas.

Betty was a force of nature.

For years, she negotiated with the State Historical Society of Iowa, owner of Plum Grove, for permission to plant a heritage garden as the state planned its sesquicentennial celebration in 1995. Betty, along with Joanne Leach, diligently researched the Lucas family, including Friendly’s diaries and letters, and newspapers to identify what people ate during that era and made every effort to be accurate in the garden and each undertaking.

Betty took great care organizing activities at Plum Grove, from examining the methods of gardening to the construction of the picket fence around the vegetable garden. She and Master Gardeners organized the heritage tastings, researching recipes of the day, decorations and period music and inviting Lucas Farms Neighborhood residents who think of the Heritage Tasting Party as a neighborhood gathering.

Today, Plum Grove boasts several gardens: vegetable (1995), Grandma’s Heirloom Flower Garden (1998), a wildflower garden (2000), and the Quester’s Rose Garden (2010). The historic vegetable and flower gardens are part of the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens. Plum Grove gardens have received local, state and national recognition including the first Iowa State Service Award, National Smithsonian Garden Award and an Irving Weber Award. Plum Grove has been a featured garden on the Project GREEN Garden Tour.

The Taste of the Heritage Garden was organized in 1996 and a Taste of HeirloomTomatoes, featuring heirloom tomatoes, was first offered to the public in 2013. Both are tributes to Iowa’s long history with food. Betty, along with Master Gardener volunteers, coordinated both events annually until the coronavirus pandemic interrupted our lives (2020 & 2021).

Betty trained as a Master Gardener in 1988 and served the Johnson County organization for 34 years achieving lifetime status recognition. The local program was organized in 1982. This year, 2022, Johnson County Master Gardeners will celebrate 40 years of service.

Master Gardening was only one of Betty’s vocations. Her love of learning never waned—at 94-years old she was still reading books and articles. She loved history. In her free time, she would devour history books, make notes, and often write a paper just for herself.

She was an accomplished artist who used her sketches (example to the right) to adorn JCMG newsletters, invitations and flyers, and she was a well-known hosta judge who frequently traveled to attend shows and competitions.

Born in Chicago, Betty graduated from Franklin High School in Cedar Rapids and received a B.A. from Iowa State University and a M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. She was a University of Iowa professor until the Board of Regents reorganized course offerings and transferred the textile department to Iowa State University. Logically, her teaching career pivoted to instruction at Kirkwood Community College. While at Kirkwood, her classes focused on Interior Design – allowing all of her talents to shine – textiles, architecture, furniture, history, art, creating an experience, and the art of presenting.

Betty’s resourcefulness and commitment were on display throughout her life. She supported numerous organizations and held numerous positions in the community following her retirement from academia. Betty often accompanied her husband Bill to Des Moines to lobby for senior citizens, an effort she continued in her retirement. Advocating for seniors through the Heritage Agency on Aging came naturally for this former instructor.

Betty was an advocate for preservation. She served three terms with the Iowa City Preservation Commission—she was honored with the Historic Preservation Person of the Year Award in 1999 and also received a Governor’s Volunteer Award in 2008.

Betty and Bill traveled the world together. Family members recall many photos of Bill waiting outside a historical building while Betty was inside absorbing the history of the building, architecture, textiles, art, and techniques. She was an accomplished seamstress, making her own patterns for clothing; and she loved to knit and taught herself furniture upholstering.

Betty Kelly (right) gives the photographer the side-eye at a JCMG activity

Betty was a longtime volunteer and contributor to Johnson County Livable Communities. She wrote meaningful articles and contributed them to various publications about issues she cared deeply about and she was a frequent visitor to the LWV Legislative Forums to lobby lawmakers about important senior issues.

This online interview will give insight into Betty’s tenacity: https://www.iowapublicradio.org/state-government-news/2014-10-01/older-iowans-vs-the-governor

Betty will be missed but her legacy will live on as her gifts to the community.

Betty (standing) visits with Johnson County lawmakers at a League of Women Voters Legislative Forum in 2015. Pictured (l to r) are Kevin Kinney, Bobby Kaufmann, Bob Dvorsky, Sally Stutsman and Dave Jacoby.