Betty Ann Bryant (1938–1994)

It’s not true that you can find everything on the internet. Not long ago I went looking for Betty Ann Bryant. Betty Ann was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. I dedicated my novel, The Mud of the Place, “to the memory and spirit of Betty Ann Lima Bryant (1938–1994), who showed me where to look.” What she showed me was the year-round island, the island that I’d never even glimpsed as an occasional summer visitor.

I was shocked. There were so few traces of Betty Ann on the Web. She was mentioned in Mary Breslauer’s Vineyard Gazette eulogy for Betty Ann’s dear friend Gerry Studds after he died in 2006, and in the obituaries for her husband, Danny, who died in 2011. That was pretty much it.

Betty Ann’s obituary from the Martha’s Vineyard Times, written by her friend and my colleague, Times reporter Gerry Kelly, did a wonderful job of evoking her work and her spirit. It wasn’t on the Web either. I had a copy — what if I reprinted it in my blog? I hesitated. Gerry himself died in 1996. I didn’t know Laura, Betty Ann and Danny Bryant’s daughter, and I didn’t want to post it without her OK.

Fast-forward a couple of years. Laura and I connected — on Facebook, where else? She loved the idea, and provided the photo below. And she added this: “My mom now has two beautiful great-granddaughters, Jena Isabella Cleary, aged 15 months, daughter of her special grandson James and his wife Libby; and Aubriella Elisabeth Desplaines, 7 months old, daughter of li’l princess grandaughter Miranda German and her fiancé, Phil Desplaines. Mom would have loved them so and they are her legacy for sure.”


By Gerald R. Kelly

Betty Ann Lima Bryant, 56, died on Nov. 23 [1994] at 2 a.m. Her daughter Laurie was with her. It was the first time Betty Ann ever abandoned anyone, but death required it.

Betty Ann Bryant 96 res

Betty Ann listens to a supporter while campaigning for Dukes County commissioner. Photo courtesy of Laura Bryant German.

In the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital a few days earlier, she was uncharacteristically quiet. She looked like Betty Ann, though ethereally thin, but usually a chance encounter with this remarkable person was like stepping into a complicated controversy that was already underway. You were expected to know about the issues, have opinions, participate, and be on the right side.

She was sharp-tongued, witty, passionate, and dramatic. She was never without an urgent cause or a desperate need, always on behalf of someone else. When Betty Ann Bryant asked help for someone publicly, she was customarily swamped with responses from all those who believed implicitly in her.

She was the confidante and local representative of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Congressman Gerry Studds, and the official greeter for President Clinton.

Mr. Dukakis, who will speak at the memorial service on Saturday, [Dec. 3, 1994,] said, “I think every television station in America ought to be at that memorial service to tell the story of Betty Ann Bryant. Instead of giving us nothing but blood and gore and tragedy day after day, they ought to tell some stories about her, because she was the kind of person who makes democracy work in this country. There are a lot of Betty Ann Bryants out there who are working their heads off day after day after day, making life better for their communities and their fellow citizens.

“Apart from our personal bond and everything she did for me, that was the motivating force in her life, and she would have been the first to tell you she got enormous personal fulfillment from doing it.”

“She was very, very close to me for a very long time,” said Mr. Studds. “She was clearly one of a kind. She stands as a reminder to all of us that one person can make a very real difference indeed. And she held us all to that standard, as best she could — a lot of people, including myself.

“I guess the best that each of us could hope for when our time comes is that people will look back and say that person really made a difference, that this is a better world for him or her having been there, and I think there is unanimity in that about Betty. She was special.”

Islanders will miss her in many ways. When we hear of a homeless person, she will not be there to find a home. When a woman in trouble needs help, there’s no single phone number to give her, the way we’d automatically blurt out Betty Ann’s number.

There are still people working to help other people, but Betty Ann was a clearing-house, the first person to call, and she would not only tell a needy person where to turn, but go along to secure the help, and follow up two days later to make sure everything turned out as it should.

Angela Madison, a close friend and protege of Betty Ann’s for most of her life, recalls, “Well over 20 years ago, my niece Holly was with me when I went to see Betty Ann. At the time, Betty was a mentor in Community Action on advocacy for poor people. I went to visit her and went into her house. We got no further than the kitchen when Betty just started talking a mile a minute, about politics and the Democratic party and about issues with welfare recipients, and all this time she had my three-year-old niece in hand, getting out pots and pans and water on a little table so she could play while we were talking.

“We never even sat down. Betty Ann kept on talking about all these things and I felt like I was getting a lesson in politics, in advocacy, and early childhood education all at the same time. In the space of about 20 minutes. Betty Ann continued to talk the whole time and I don’t know if I got a word in edgewise when it was time to go. I shut the door and my little niece looked up at me and said, ‘Aunt Angie — who’s the lady with all the words?’

“She was a determined person in helping others and no matter who they were, they received respect. She taught me about dealing with other people that no matter who they were, they could teach me something. And whatever the situation was, it required respect.”

Even in the last year of her life, battling a killing cancer, she met a young person in a hospital who was sick and didn’t know where to turn. Betty Ann found a doctor, transportation, a support group, and helped devise a way to pay for it all.

She was born in 1938, in Edgartown, the daughter of Priscilla Klingensmith and Manuel Lima. She was the oldest child and, after her parents died, she took responsibility for the rest of the family.

Her sister Dottie Grant recalls, “Many, many times when I needed Betty Ann, she would balance out my needs and say, ‘Your needs aren’t important today’; some other child or some other family was far more important at that time. What she thought was important really was important.

“She raised us, she helped finance us, she was a big part in all my children’s education. She took Kenny to Washington with her for the presidential inauguration and my niece, Tara. She was right there when they all went to college. She was behind them one hundred percent. In fact, when my son graduated valedictorian, Betty Ann jumped up and wanted his name changed to Lima.”

Betty Ann was cleaning houses for a living in the early 1960s and was cleaning the mental health center once a week when Dr. Milton Mazer and Bill Bruff ran it. “We realized there was much more to her than we had recognized,” Dr. Mazer recalled. “She was passionate about people, and I’d seen her give her last $5 to someone. At the time there was a job available in the poverty program and we asked her why she didn’t apply.

“She said, ‘Oh, I’ve only been to high school; I don’t have any credentials.’ We asked her to sit down and tell us about herself and she wrote out a resume and got the job. That’s what started her. From there on she just went on and did everything.

“The saddest thing was when I visited her in the hospital and she didn’t say much. For Betty not to say anything was just unbelievable. She always had convictions and opinions. She was a remarkable person. She was a passionate citizen and did as much for the Vineyard as anyone I know.”

She was elected to the Chilmark School Committee and turned that body on its ear. She met Maurita Prada, the late school committee member from Edgartown, and they were a formidable pair. Maurita always described herself as a Boston Irish politician and Betty Ann learned the Democrat basics from her.

She was an advocate for the homeless for Community Action from 1986 until she died; a tax collector in Chilmark; a paralegal for Legal Services; Family Planning director and counselor; youth worker at the Vineyard Youth Center; VISTA volunteer; a school committee member, Chilmark selectman; and a Dukes County Commissioner to the end of her life.

She served on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the Regional Housing Authority, the Dukes County Planning and Economic Development Committee, the Regional Transit Authority, was a justice of the peace, a director of Community Services, an EMT with the Tri-town Ambulance Committee, a trained Samaritan, a member of the Welfare Advisory Board, the Chilmark Registrar of Voters, drug committee, Dental Survey Committee, a Chilmark election officer, and much more. She was chairwoman of the Chilmark Democratic Committee, and the Cape and Islands Democratic Council.

Her father was born in the Azores and her mother was Pennsylvania Dutch. She was the oldest of six children and attended the Island schools. She was widely traveled, including trips to Cuba, England, and France.

One of her earliest employers was Dick Bigos, who has run Community Action of the Cape and Islands since its inception. Mr. Bigos was astonished by Betty Ann, who became his link to the Island and a vigorous political leader.

Thanksgiving morning Dick Bigos was remembering Betty Ann. “She’s always worked with me, not for me. I’ll always remember her for her strength, her energy, her passion, her warmth and for making the Cape and Islands area a much better place to live.

“She was a friend. Friends trust each other; friends love each other; friends care about each other; friends disagree sometimes with each other. She and I were friends.

“She loved Gerry Studds. Gerry, apart from Dan, was the love of her life.

“I’m glad it’s over, but we’re trying to figure out how we’ll have someone to work on things she worked on. I don’t even know where to start. When I think of the Island, I think of Betty Ann. She was my lifeline to that Island.”

Philip Johnson, Secretary of Human Services under Mr. Dukakis, got to know Betty Ann well in those years and again in 1992 when he and Betty Ann were delegates to the Democratic convention that nominated President William Clinton. He said, “I’ve known her through many campaigns. I probably met her first in the Kennedy campaign, she worked for him and for Mike Dukakis. She was a key person on the Cape. I also knew her through Human Services.

“She was one of a kind — passionate, idealistic, energetic. She loved politics, loved people, and for her to be struck down so young is a real tragedy and I think we’re all sad today.”

Tom Lebach, former attorney with Legal Services of the Cape and Islands, was another friend and colleague of Betty Ann. “She started the Family Planning Foundation on the Island and she organized the Chilmark Democratic town committee and attended every state convention since 1964 and the last two presidential conventions, the last one as a delegate.

“There are very few, if any, other people who had the kind of impact on my life that she did. Not having her is going to be a huge change. I think they ought to name the new airport terminal after her. If there was anything that happened on Martha’s Vineyard that affected low income folks, she was involved in it, whether it was housing for the elderly or keeping the various bureaucracies honest.”

Rep. Eric Turkington was another friend. “When I first came to the Vineyard I didn’t know a half dozen people but Betty was one of them and, by the time she had introduced me to all her friends, I knew everyone.

“I was thinking the other day when the electricity went out: ‘Well, it’s going to go out again soon.’ I think it did when she went.

“She was a seminal person on that Island, a constant source of energy and enthusiasm and caring. She may have been only five-foot-six, but she was a giant. She was single-minded in her enthusiasm for Island issues from the very first time I met her to the very last time I talked to her. She was always pushing the Island agenda. And it wasn’t the agenda of the people with the big houses; it was the agenda for the people with no houses. She knew everybody, especially in the Dukakis years. She could run through the State House and poke her head in every door and find somebody she knew.”

Robert Carroll, a prominent Island Democrat and businessman, was Betty Ann’s first employer, back when he had a lunch counter. He said, “The outstanding quality she possessed was her serious concern for everybody else and she had that until she died. She was just a great gal and didn’t deserve what she got returned.”

About a year ago, knowing death was imminent, she decided to do a number of things she had always wanted to do. Dotty Lima said, “She did get to New York to see ‘Cats’ with her grandson. She had been to England with her two younger sisters, Ginny and Bobby. Her last request was for us to go to Portugal to find our ancestors and to go to Pennsylvania to look for our mother’s relatives.”

Betty Ann Lima Bryant is survived by her husband, Daniel; her daughter and son-in-law, Laura Bryant and Michael German; her grandson, [James] Cleary; and granddaughter, Miranda Elizabeth German. She is also survived by her sisters, Dotty Grant, Edgartown; Virginia Carbon, Edgartown; Roberta Whiting, Edgartown; and her brothers, Tony Lima, New York City, and Jacky Lima, Florida.

The memorial service for Betty Ann Lima Bryant will be held at the Old Whaling Church on Saturday, December 3, at 10 a.m.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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10 Responses to Betty Ann Bryant (1938–1994)

  1. Joel Kahn says:

    I had the great pleasure of working with Betty Ann at Community Action around 1970. She was a force to be reckoned with…always fired up over the injustices she encountered. Betty Ann was an inspiration to all of us.
    Just to set the record straight, CACCI at that time was under the direction of Charles Hahn and Peter Olotka. Dick Bigos joined later as some sort of communications person. Betty Ann’s co-worker on the Islands was Walter Robinson, the bass player in James Taylor’s studio band. We worked closely with Legal Services under the direction of BobTerry who later became a judge.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris says:

    Can’t forget to include the best stuffed quahogs the Fair has ever seen among all of Betty Ann’s other superlatives!


    • laura Bryant German says:

      Betty Hog’s…and running up to the house to make them….great memories and families sharing at the booth…those were the times and those were the days…xo


  3. David Seward says:

    Betty Ann was a force of nature. I worked with her when she was a waitress at the Home Port restaurant in the early 60’s. She was one of the best, if not the best, waitress on the staff. I was in my early teens and she treated me as a coworker and not as a youngster who should be ignored out of hand. Danny would come to pick her up after work in his old station wagon and the two of them would hang around awhile and leave the kitchen staff in stitches with their banter. They were quite a pair. Over the years Betty and I would have spirited discussions about the Vineyard and its path into the future. Though we disagreed on some issues, her solid support for the disenfranchised, the poor and her favored politicians never waned. She sat in my living room and made the case for her good friend Gerry Studds who, after his election, stood out as one of the highest ranking representatives in constituent services. He must have learned that from Betty.
    The Vineyard has always had more than its share of colorful characters, Betty and her husband were wonderful examples.


    • laura Bryant German says:

      David this means a lot….Thank you…Chilmark is home and I can’t wait to return…love to you and yours….Laurie


  4. James Cleary says:

    LOVE IT !!!!!


  5. Emily Meegan says:

    It is good to remember Betty Ann. She was one of those people who made each individual that she came in contact with feel that they were special to her. I was a young reporter at the MV Times, working under editor Gerry Kelly (as well as a few other editors in those years) and Betty Ann was a person in the community who contributed greatly to my education. Reading the obit above makes me wonder, who are the people here who have taken on her charge to help the poor and powerless on Martha’s Vineyard?


  6. laura Bryant German says:

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for bringing my mom back to life for all of us who miss her and to not forget her legacy….There was none like her and I am so proud to be her daughter. Look to the stars and she will be looking down on you with grace and of course that amazing love she had for so many…Watch over us mom….hold close james, Miranda and their families….Know you and dad are holding each other close….Wonderful posting!


  7. Nathalie Woodruff says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article about Betty Ann Bryant. She and I were the first Family Planning counselors on the Vineyard. She was passionate, intense in her advocacy for the poor and under-served. She really opened my eyes to social issues that needed to be illuminated. In retrospect, she was my first mentor. I owe so much to her spirit and courage. Thank you for these wonderful tributes to her memory. Nathalie Woodruff


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