Betty Mortorelli’s death brings back 41 years of memoriesIn one sense it seemed like only yesterday, but in reality it was an entire lifetime passing me by and I wasn’t ready. Suddenly, I wanted — no, I needed to retrieve and relive a memory or two or a hundred if necessary when I got the sad news of a grand lady passing.
By: By Deb Krieg, Special to the Telegram, Superior Telegram
In one sense it seemed like only yesterday, but in reality it was an entire lifetime passing me by and I wasn’t ready.
Suddenly, I wanted — no, I needed to retrieve and relive a memory or two or a hundred if necessary when I got the sad news of a grand lady passing.
It was 41 years ago, ironically the very same time of year as this, the start of a Labor Day weekend and the beginning of another new college year.
And there I was in a corner of my alma mater’s bookstore on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior, crying my heart and soul out to a perfect stranger for a good hour after that place closed.
And when I say perfect it’s no understatement, for in my mind Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Mortorelli — who died this past Friday at the age of 90 — was and will always be that perfect memory and friend of mine. I am not alone by any means in that feeling.
There are thousands of UWS alumni who feel as strongly as I do about her, and that’s no exaggeration. I have seen her mountain of Christmas cards.
This past weekend as I pulled up to the Rothwell Student Center after taking my favorite route from Belknap Avenue to the Mortorelli Memorial Drive — past what I still call Gates Gym and rounding North 21st Street to Catlin — it was all I could do to put my car into park before I busted into uncontrollable tears.
Doubling over onto my steering wheel, it was the flashback I wanted, craved and needed right then and there of our first meeting, Betty’s and mine, and it was the fall of 1971 all over again.
There I stood, a frantic 17-year-old college freshman 388.9 miles from home, scared and overwhelmed and on an academic overload standing in the corner of the bookstore when that same marvelous lady that had helped me at the Business Office earlier in the week was back in action doing what she did powerfully best — listening and comforting and edging me on and seriously out the door.
I could still remember the drama and the magic of the moment as I stood there, staring in utter disbelief, first at my list of books and then onto all the empty shelves.
There wasn’t one single book I needed on the shelf — any shelf, anywhere in sight — not new, not used and no, not even the $125 one.
It’s funny at times like this in your life, you not only hear your parents but you get a clear read and visual no matter how far away you are or how many states separate you. There they stand in an I-told-you-so kind of way, shaking their fingers, saying we warned you there would be days like this if you didn’t take your responsibilities more seriously. And it’s crazy, but you miss that about your parents when you go away to school.
It’s when you are far away from home and missing the lectures, encouragement and parenting that the Betty Mortorellis of the world have a way of making things better by bringing you back to center and making you feel right about whatever is missing or hurting or needs a hug.
I still remember her laugh as I asked her how would I possibly be able to walk into the classes of Ed Dennery, John Munsell, Ann Taylor, Don Mitton, John Knight, Pacey Beers, Gayle Manion and “Doc” Kaufmann without the required collegiate course materials?
I was surely destined and doomed for Drop City on Day One, no doubt as the only thing I had in hand for the first day of classes was a pitiful handful of
“Go Yellowjacket” pencils which I showed her as she continued smiling.
If I would have only just listened ... done less mingling.
I rambled as I am now, telling Betty that my dormitory resident assistant down — as in way the heck down there — at Hawkes Hall where they guarded us like the name implies lectured us new coeds about curfews, doors locking at 10 p.m., quiet study hours, no dinner on Sundays, limiting phone calls on the only phone on my wing of 30 to six minutes and no more and some Welcome Week advice that I vaguely recalled about getting to the bookstore “early.”
Yes, Mrs. Mortorelli, I said in confession-like mode — because that’s what I called her back then and that’s what I did with her, confessed everything — I should have opted to do a little less socializing in the student union, which many would say — even to this day — could have easily been my college major.
But, I didn’t want to be rushed and if the truth were to be told that five hundred bucks in cash that Dad gave me before he jetted off was burning a hole in my pocket and could have been better spent at Roth Bros, Ekstroms, Kings Inn, Goldfines by the Bridge, Guenards Candy Store on Tower or the Beacon on a movie or two than the poor excuse for a bookstore.
And besides, I was there in plenty of time, I thought, as the sign said I still had 10 minutes before the bookstore closed on the day before the holiday and classes were to officially start.
How long do you really need to get books anyway? And what kind of college runs out of them?
As those tears I mentioned streamed down my face, I saw out of the corner of my eye, mascara running everywhere, that Betty was still listening and nodding and not making light of it as she was wrote a note and copied it for all my instructors, telling them this was not my fault. This was not my fault.
She seriously was heaven-sent, and I remember I couldn’t get enough of her that day or ever … and that’s why I keep writing and babbling on right now.
I’d sit by her in the stands, on the sidelines, heck — I’d follow her home on many an occasion.
Little did I know back on that day in August 1971 that that woman who came to my rescue would over the course of my student and adult life at UWS and in Superior become my rock star, my role model, my inspiration and dearest, dearest cherished friend.
She’d be there for many a personal and professional reason. Many a game we spent together in the bleachers or at the front gates selling tickets. She’d critique my work and offer encouragement. She was a part of every important event in my life, including major milestones from my wedding and first baby showers, which she helped hostess, to the second grandchild being born and then a third.
Yes, Betty Mortorelli was there for me and so many other countless students, athletes and friends over the years, which for her was a role she deeply cherished and honored.
So many thoughts and feelings ran through my mind Friday as I thought of the very first Friday our paths crossed, and I thank God for the fact she blessed so many lives.
Betty Mortorelli was afterall one of the university’s greatest ambassadors and believers in her Catholic faith, her family, this community, this university, this journey we call life.
We knew her for what she was — the “First Lady of Superior Sports” — and closer to home and each heart she was our proxy “mom.”
We all knew deep down that Betty had more kids than her own children — Dennis, Jackie and Tom.
I gravitated to her as others did and not only for the best spaghetti sauce that was ever made but because of what she and her husband, Mertz who died before her, stood for and championed.
Betty and Mertz were so many, many things to so many, many people.
They were both legendary, immortal in their own respected individual rights.
Betty Mortorelli will be deeply missed.
Heaven just got a little better.
My thoughts and prayers go out to her enormous list of “family,” a list that can’t possibly be printed here or on any page as it spans across this planet with literally a Cathedral of friends and fond memories that will be retrieved over and over again.
Deb Krieg is a former writer for the Superior Telegram and covered local news and sports.