Blue State Views

Betty Tierney: A Life Well Lived

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DSC_0052 At the age of 91, my mother, Betty R. Tierney, expired on December 2, 2010.  She died from complications caused by pneumonia.

She brought four of us into this world — my brother Pat, of Vail, CO; my brother Tom, of Seattle, WA; my brother Dennis, of Portland, OR; and me.  She was married to our Dad, Thomas M. Tierney, from 1943 until his death in 2001.

Betty was born in Denver, CO, in 1919, and attended public schools there until high school, when she enrolled in St. Mary's Academy, a Catholic school for girls. She was a bit of a rebel there, and once got suspended for violating the school dress code by wearing "short shorts."  As the photo at right indicates, she had legs to be proud of. TMT-2007-053

She attended Rosary College in River Forest, Illinois, but World War II interrupted her studies and she never completed her degree.

She and my Dad married during the war.  My Dad was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, earning many medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal (with thirteen oakleaf clusters), and the Croix de Guerre.  After visiting him at a stateside airbase before he went to his assignment in Britain, my mother took a train to St. TMT-2007-090 Louis, where her father drove (from Denver) to pick her up by car.  On their way back to Colorado, they had a horrible traffic accident in a blinding snowstorm in Nebraska — a head-on collision with a bus. Her father died instantly, and my mother suffered severe injuries, including multiple compound fractures of her right leg.

In some ways, my mother's life was dominated by a single dichotomy: through much of her life, she was surrounded by family members very much in the public limelight, yet she herself was intensely private and introverted.

Her father, Herbert C. Fairall, was a prominent Denver businessman and newspaper publisher who was elected State Treasurer.  One of her sisters, Eleanor, was married to Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, who is best known for courageously denouncing the herding of Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II.  Eleanor herself later was elected to the Colorado state legislature in the 1950s, one of the few women to hold such an office at the time.  TMT-2007-056 My dad, Thomas M. Tierney, was a Denver attorney and civic leader who became president of Colorado Blue Cross  in the early 1960s. (That's him in the photo to the right.)  In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to be Director of the Medicare program for the United States — a position he held for ten years, longer than any other Medicare director in the program's history.

Even though my mother's family associations (especially her marriage to my father) constantly thrust her into a public role, she was never comfortable with that world, preferring the quiet and solitude of home life.  She loved to read (mostly mysteries) and, in her earlier years, was a skilled artist.

Born and raised in Denver, she always considered it her home, even though she lived away from there almost half her life.

TMT-2007-209 When my father died in 2001, my mother had one week of living on her own before falling and breaking her hip.  (It was, I believe, a week she enjoyed, in a fashion, as she was finally out from under my Dad's large shadow.)  In the wake of her injury, my brothers and I decided that we would move her up to Boston to live near me, since at the time I seemed best positioned to take care of her.   She was 82 at the time, and none of us imagined that she would live too long (old people with hip breaks typically don't).  This seemed especially true when, two months later, she fell and broke her pelvis. 

But Betty Tierney was a stubborn survivor.  She had already by that time survived a horrific automobile accident in her 20s and stomach cancer at the age of 70.  In the years she was here in Boston, she had three heart attacks, several bouts of congestive heart failure, breast cancer, and another run-in with pneumonia.

Sc00aa4ec5 She was, as a friend of mine said, "one tough lady."  But if you'd met her, you'd never have thought of her as tough. She was the sweetest, gentlest person on Earth.  It's true, though, that she clung to life fiercely, tenaciously.  I believe that's partly because the Roman Catholic Church — of which she was a devout, lifelong adherent — literally put "the fear of God" into her, teaching her nonsense about purgatory and divine retribution. She was afraid to die and thus fought the Grim Reaper to the very end.  Why?  What sort of punishment in the afterlife could she have feared?  I once asked her what she thought her worst sin was.  She said, in all seriousness, that she had "unkind thoughts about some people."  Good lord!

She was a very good woman, devoted to her family and her God.  I do not share the faith she held. But if she was correct about all that, then she is seated now at the right hand of her Lord, for she was as good, in every sense, as a person can possibly be.  If she was not correct about it, then she's still okay, for she lives on brightly in the hearts and minds of those of us who loved her in this world.  And she will be with us for as long as we are here.


0 thoughts on “Betty Tierney: A Life Well Lived

  1. What a lovely tribute to a wonderful lady. How blessed you were to have such a loving mother and how blessed was she to have such a devoted son. xoxo

  2. John, this is a wonderful, eloquent act of love for your mother (and father). I had had no idea of the many chapters and aspects of her life. Thank you so much for sharing this view of her and of your dad, at a difficult jim.

  3. My condolences and best wishes to you, Sue, your children, your siblings and their families. No son, including me, could have written a more eloquent tribute. I regret never having the chance to meet her, but, knowing you, I can certainly think of one very good thing that she did!

  4. I am sorry to read about your mother’s passing but she certainly had a life well and fully lived, from your beautiful tribute.
    My sincere condolences to you and your entire family.
    May her memory be a blessing for all of you.

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