Bette Belle Smith inspired others to give as she did

With her white hair and her warm smile, Bette Belle Smith was a natural as Mrs. Claus, appearing as she did for many years at McHenry Village, the McHenry Museum and at various community functions.

But, she fit the character so perfectly not because she looked the part but because she didn't have to act it. She was giving personified.

Over the decades, Bette Belle had a key role in some of Modesto's most successful projects, including the Gallo Center for the Arts, and in some of its most effective organizations, including Omega Nu, the Modesto Symphony Orchestra and The Salvation Army.

Her death Sunday, at age 88, brought a predictable -- and wonderfully appropriate -- outpouring of memories. Threaded through the many tributes is a common theme: the woman many called "Mrs. Modesto" didn't just do things for her community, she inspired others to do the same, creating a steady surge of positive action that will be forever treasured and greatly missed.

Last year, some of her friends, community leaders in their own right, organized an effort to encourage a new generation of people to be like Bette Belle. As grand an idea as that was, we doubt there'll ever be anyone quite like her. She was a unique person who lived -- and thrived -- in the midst of changing roles for women.

She was a stay-at-home mom -- we use that term loosely, given how much she did away from home -- who didn't enter the workforce until she was nearly 60, an age when many people are retiring or at least thinking about it. Instead, she went to work at Modesto Banking Co., where she was a mentor to employees and customers alike.

As busy as she was over the years, she always had time to visit with old friends or make new ones. As one wrote in the Legacy guestbook on, Bette Belle had a way of making every person feel important. Another wrote: "She made me proud to be a woman."

Over the next few days, many people will share stories of Bette Belle, send condolences to the family, and, we hope, make donations to one of the many charitable organizations she supported.

One of the best ways to honor her legacy is to say "yes" when someone asks you to volunteer to help a non-profit. Or better yet, don't wait to be asked -- after all, Bette Belle never did.

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