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Jardine: Smith's impact is not easy to sum up

In April, Modesto psychologist Phil Trompetter launched a Facebook page titled "We Love Bette Belle Smith."

He wanted to create a place online where people could pay tribute to the woman who spent her entire life making Modesto a better place and making many Modestans better people.

Within a few short weeks, the online fan club grew to 239 members from across the United States, many of them posting messages borne of love and respect.

Shortly after her death at age 88 Sunday night, new tributes began appearing in the form of condolences. Many of her friends looked for the right word to describe her.

"Icon."

"Angel."

"Amazing."

"Gem."

No single friend found the perfect description, even though their tributes were poignant and heartfelt.

Bette Belle deserved the multiple-choice option, with the "All of the Above" box already filled in.

"I still end up feeling frustrated when I try to describe her," Trompetter said. "There's no one word that describes her."

That's because Bette Belle focused on actions. Words, framed by her smile, were just a means toward achieving her goals.

She reminded us that the great ones don't just do. They inspire others to do, too. Whenever she raised funds for a cause or helped push a project through, she led by example and drew others to be like her. And it didn't matter if she worked to benefit a charity, the arts, schools or anything else. If she was involved, you knew it was legit, period.

Really, how could you say "no" when Bette Belle had already said "yes?"

She knew this city as well as anyone, with an institutional memory built upon nearly nine decades of knowledge and experiences. Born and raised here, she watched Modesto blossom from a small farming community of 9,200 to its current 210,000 population. She saw the town grow into a city and its needs change dramatically, and she worked tirelessly to address those changing needs.

Bette Belle became not only a personal friend but also a source and a great resource. Need to know something about Modesto from any era? Chances are she not only would remember the event, but put it into context, too.

A year ago, with Dec. 7 approaching, I worked on a column about how people in Modesto reacted to Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Too easy.

"We couldn't imagine anyone being so stealthy and getting away with it," she recalled.

She then went into vivid detail about the blackout conditions in Modesto after hearing of the attack over the radio, and then listening to President Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech.

Also last year, I wrote a column about how so few children today learn to save through school banking programs, which once were commonplace. Raised during the Great Depression, Bette Belle recalled diligently saving enough coins to fill the 30 slots of a dime card to make a $3 bank deposit through Washington Elementary School, reflecting a much different mind-set than exists today.

"I was taught by a family that didn't spend money unless we had cash," she said.

Whether looking back on Modesto or looking for ways to improve it through her civic activism, Bette Belle remained ready to help.

The irony of the "We Love Bette Belle Smith" Facebook page is that pretty much up until she died, she preferred the hand-written note to e-mails. If you did something she liked, you'd probably get a card in the mail telling you so. It wasn't simply the way she did business. It was the way she did life.

Hence, another reminder of the impact she made in leading by example:

During a recent motorcycle trip to Carmel, Trompetter bought some stationery in one of the town's quaint little shops.

"She was the first and only person I've written to using that stationery," he said. "I guess it's a way of being more like her."

A tribute, indeed. But the ultimate tribute?

Said Trompetter: "I sort of expect all of us to become a little more Bette Belle Smith-ish by doing more."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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