Elaine Wiswall Betts

Castine, Maine and Santa Rosa, Calif.

AUGUST 24, 1925 – JANUARY 3, 2021

Elaine Wiswall Betts was born in Albany, N.Y., on Aug. 24, 1925, the daughter of Frank L. Wiswall and Clara C. Wiswall. She attended the Albany Academy for Girls and graduated from Smith College. Two weeks after graduating from Smith College in 1947, Elaine left for France to work in Normandy with war-orphaned children following the German occupation of Paris. Of these times Elaine recalled, “Like most Americans, or certainly women of my generation, I had never lived near active land mines, rusting tanks or faced near starvation. This experience became a major turning point in my life.”

Seeking answers to the world’s problems, Elaine attended a summer session for international studies at the University of Zurich in 1949. Hans Kohn, a visiting professor, introduced her to several influential people, including Carl Jung. Her experiences in Europe inspired Elaine to become one of the first two women to attend Columbia University’s Union Theological Seminary in New York, where she studied under theologians Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.

At Union, Elaine met the Rev. Darby W. Betts, an Episcopal priest, architectural student and assistant chaplain at Columbia University. They married in 1951 and honeymooned at Darby’s newly acquired old dairy farm in North Castine. Since that time, Meadow Farm and Castine have been home port for the Wiswall-Betts family hearts.

Elaine and Darby moved to the Cathedral close when Darby became canon and headmaster of the Cathedral Choir School at St. John the Divine in NYC, where they welcomed the first family dog, a great Dane named Kierkegaard. In 1952, their first child Victoria was born, followed in 1954 by their daughter Catherine. In 1955, the family moved to a four-story Victorian rectory in Providence, R.I., when Darby became dean of Providence’s Cathedral of St. John. In 1958, their third child, Darby Jr., was born.

1960 was a momentous year for Elaine when Darby became archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California. The family left Castine in a VW camper bound for the San Francisco Bay Area and a one-story Eichler home in Marin County. For Elaine, California offered a new, casual culture in an exciting and volatile time. Elaine had grown up riding horses, skiing, skating and playing tennis, so she actively encouraged her children to do the same. Everyone in the family enjoyed sailing on both coasts and all three children participated competitively in sports as young adults. In 1964, the family moved again when Darby became rector of St. Paul’s Church in Oakland. Elaine encouraged her children to understand the tumultuous times as social gospel calls for urban renewal, civil rights, conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, fair housing laws and educational equality.

In 1975, when her children were independent enough for Elaine to resume her own graduate studies, she also held a guidance counseling job and taught comparative religions, French and English at Anna Head School for Girls in Oakland. At age 50, Elaine received an MA in educational psychology from Holy Names College in Oakland and earned her California teaching credential. By 1980 Elaine was head of the upper school at the now co-ed Head-Royce school and ready for a change. With her family’s blessings, Elaine moved and became headmistress of her alma mater, Albany Academy for Girls in upstate New York.

Four years apart from her family were difficult and rewarding. Among Elaine’s peers she earned the reputation of being a caring and astute listener, an assertive and effective leader for young women to emulate, a capable manager and a visionary CEO.

Elaine’s cross-country marriage worked well enough while Darby pursued his creative vision to form the Northern California-based Episcopal Homes Foundation building elder communities dedicated to security-in-the-full life. For the remainder of their lives Elaine and Darby, each in their own time, transitioned from independent to assisted living and finally to the skilled nursing residence at Spring Lake Village in Santa Rosa, Calif. Elaine and Darby formed great friendships there and happily referred to this community as their “launching pad” to the next world.

In 1984, Elaine became headmistress of Dana Hall School, a girls’ boarding and day school in Wellesley, Mass. Her 11 years leading Dana Hall were the highlight of her career. Together with her friend and director of admissions Olive Long, Elaine joined United Airlines million-mile club as they flew worldwide cultivating alumnae, meeting current parents and recruiting future Dana Hall students from many countries and socioeconomic backgrounds. Of Dana Hall, Elaine said, “If I ever had reservations about the value of schools for girls, they would have been quickly dispelled by the interesting and accomplished women of Dana Hall.”

A 1992 Dana Hall graduate wrote of Elaine’s impact on her life, “I can recall being a student representative on the board of trustees subcommittee during which I voiced my spirited opinion, likely to the dismay of some trustees. Mrs. Betts let me speak freely and treated me as an adult. She made me feel heard and respected. Her willingness to let us speak our minds and explore boundaries were priceless opportunities. In college and later in my adulthood I arrived with a voice and was never intimidated. I appreciate her Leadership of our Dana Community.”

Retiring from Dana Hall in 1995 with her trusted assistant head Blair Jenkins in place as headmistress, Elaine remained an active education consultant on both coasts. Her grandson Gabriel was born in 1996 and for 23 years they enjoyed Castine after-school dates at “Gammy’s” house, Gabe’s school sports games, visits to wild animal parks and wineries in Napa-Sonoma. Elaine’s travels to Maine ended in 2014. Blessed to have her daughter Catherine nearby, the two enjoyed many picnics at the Head of Bodega Bay watching for migrating whales as Elaine and Darby often did together. “Cat” was at Elaine’s bedside until her last hour on Jan. 3, 2021.

Elaine was predeceased by her parents, husband, Darby, in 1998 and sister Betty Anne Conley in 2019. She is survived by her brother Frank and sister-in-law Elizabeth Wiswall of Castine, her daughter Victoria and son-in-law Temple Blackwood of Castine, daughter Catherine Betts of Santa Rosa, Calif., son Darby Betts Jr. and his partner Amy Stewart of Penobscot, grandson Gabriel Stearns of Castine and several nieces and nephews.

A celebration of Elaine’s life will be arranged at a future time and she will be buried next to Darby at the Castine cemetery. Gifts of remembrance may be made to the Spring Lake Village Chapel Fund, Santa Rosa, Calif., Dana Hall School, Wellesley, Mass., or Trinity Episcopal Church, Castine.

Know when to pay your respects.