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Bettie and Jack Leonard

Bettie and Jack Leonard

I doubt there will ever be a statue erected of Bettie Leonard in the rotunda of the Capitol of Texas, but there should be. Bettie, and her husband, Jack, are of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation that endured the Great Depression, World War II, and watched the world go from Victrolas to iPads. She was the kind of hero I prefer; the huggable kind. Only she was so tiny you’d have to stoop over to hug her.

Bettie Leonard was a pint-size helping of feisty that gently, but firmly, ruled over her family like the Countess Dowager of Downton Abbey. Bettie was all that a family matriarch should be: witty, intelligent, austere, demanding, loving and gracious. When you left a conversation with her, you felt like the most important person in the world and could do anything you set your mind to. She naturally made people better at being themselves. She and Jack are the threads that hold the tapestry of the Leonard family together.

Several years ago, Bettie’s grandniece, Cary, was going marry to David in Cozumel and asked me to photograph her wedding. That’s like asking a chubby kid if the wants a Snickers bar. I quickly said yes and Christine – who I was dating at that time – insisted that she go along as a photographer’s assistant.

David and Cary’s wedding was postcard beautiful on the sandy beach of Cozumel. They planned it early in the stay so the family could enjoy the rest of the time just being family. I took my Ovation guitar and sang at their wedding, From This Moment.

Bettie asked me later to have a little church service on the beach for just our family. She wanted to know if I could sing her favorite song, I Can Only Imagine.

I wanted to ask Christine to marry me while we were on the island, but I didn’t want to do anything to detract from the wonderful experience of Cary and David. Therefore, I waited a couple of days after their wedding was over and approached Bettie to ask her what she thought of the idea. I wanted her blessing.

Her eyes immediately sparkled like a little kid chasing an ice cream truck. If a person could capture the sparkle in her eyes and bottle it up, millions of dollars could be made with that magic elixir. It would be one-part-wisdom, one-part-mischief, one-part-intuition, one-part-humor and all parts soaked in hard work and love.

“Oh, I think that’s a marvelous idea!” she squealed, “We love Christine! You guys would make a perfect couple! So when do you want to do it? What can I do to help?”

I suddenly discovered another part about Bettie: she’s pretty darn sneaky when she wants to be. And since Christine can spot a surprise in the making from a mile a way, we had to be extra careful.

The basic plan was that after dark I would go to the clubhouse for a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses then take Christine on a moonlight stroll along the beach. After I proposed, then the family was going to be waiting for us in the clubhouse to help us celebrate. Bettie was confident that Christine would say, “Yes.”

While the secret shenanigans were being planned, Betty was inviting partners-in-crime into the mix, Cary’s mother and father, Connie and Jerry. They were standing on a sidewalk by a lamppost whispering to each other when Christine walked up on them.

“What are you guys doing? Christine asked.

“Oh, we’re admiring this beautiful bougainvillea! Isn’t it lovely?” Bettie quickly covered.

“Yeah, uh, we think this bougainvillea is about the prettiest bougainvillea we’ve ever seen.” Jerry added his two cents.

“Yep, the most beautiful bougainvillea God ever made.” Connie chimed in.

Although Christine has a keen nose for a ruse, she also loves flowers and plants so she joined in on the admiration of nature.

Later in the evening after sunset, I suggested to Christine that we take a stroll along the beach. Before I could offer to get the wine, she quickly jumped up and headed to the clubhouse to get it. Bettie had already spread the word so the family was in the clubhouse waiting for us.

 “What are you doing here, honey?” Bettie quizzed Christine, wondering why I wasn’t with her.

“Rick asked me to go for a stroll along the beach and I suggested we take a bottle of wine so here I am.”

Christine found me by the pool near the beach a few minutes later so we could begin our stroll.

“That was kind of odd.” She said. “I thought the family said they were going to bed, but they were all in the clubhouse. I tried to visit with them but Bettie acted like she was in a big hurry to get me the bottle of wine and glasses and shush me out the door. Oh, well, lets go for a stroll.”

With moonlight dancing on the waves, she said yes to my proposal.

Some time went by after I proposed and I finally said to her, “You know, we ought to be getting back up to the clubhouse. Our family is waiting there for us.”

“So THAT’S why Bettie was shushing me out the door! She knew all about this, didn’t she?”

 “Actually, she is the first person who knew I was going to ask you to marry me.”

We held the wedding in our backyard several months later with Jack and Bettie there, along with others in the family who had been at Cozumel. It was a quaint little wedding surrounded by people who loved us and loved each other.

To close the evening, we all gathered around and sang the song that Jack and Bettie sang to all of their family.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,

you make me happy when skies are gray

You’ll never know dear, how much I love you,

so please don’t take my sunshine away.

Bettie went to heaven recently. Her ray of sunshine brought a lot of warmth to this lonely world and her light continues to shine through all those hearts she infused her love and grace. Even my little grandchildren feel her warmth because I frequently sing to them:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,

you make me happy when skies are gray

The chorus to the song she loved, I Can Only Imagine, has these words:

Surrounded by your glory

What will my heart feel

Will I dance for your Jesus

Or in awe of you be still

Will I stand in your presence

Or to my knees will I fall

Will I sing hallelujah

Will I be able to speak at all

I can only imagine

Bettie no longer has to imagine.

But I do. And I can’t help but imagine that when she saw Jesus for the first time, she heard him sing:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…

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