A View from Glen Hill: A life of music and much, much more.

Betty Jones, who with her husband Doug are long-time Wilton residents, had her autobiography published recently, and Doug spoke about it at the library this past week. Betty’s life story is a remarkable one, and one fascinating aspect of it is the manner in which the Wilton community was a catalyst for her remarkable operatic achievements.

Being an opera star was certainly not Betty’s career objective when she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. She majored in art, and her first professional calling was in painting and sculpture. Meanwhile, she sang in Wilton Congregational Church’s choir beginning right after she and Doug moved to Wilton in 1954. The choir’s director, Margaret Gregory, recognized what a remarkable alto voice Betty had and realized that, with professional training, there might be no limit to her potential development as a vocal artist. So Director Gregory encouraged her to seek professional vocal lessons and found an excellent instructor for her in former Wilton resident Georgiana Schenck Gregersen at the highly regarded Mannes College of Music in New York City.

Betty’s vocal talents led Professor Gregersen to refer Betty to Professor Gregersen’s own instructor, one of the most noted in the country, and the result was that Betty developed a range that went up to the high soprano register while she still retained the lower range and deeper vibrancy of her long-standing alto. The finished vocal product wowed audiences from New York, Boston and Chicago to San Francisco, Seattle and Phoenix as she performed in major roles across the country (and in Europe and Australia as well) beginning at age 41. This was barely 15 years after Marian Anderson broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera, the 60th anniversary of which has just been celebrated.

Betty’s autobiography contains many engaging stories from her operatic career. To touch on one among many high points, she was honored in 1986 as one of Connecticut’s creative greats, receiving our state’s Arts Award — an award whose other recipients include Marian Anderson, historian Barbara Tuchman, and fellow Wiltonian Dave Brubeck.

For many professional vocalists, the process of operatic development is a long and painstaking one taking many years even under excellent professional instruction and with the utmost dedication. Yet Betty’s professional operatic “second career” took off rapidly. She brought to her new calling not only a voice of remarkable range and vibrancy but also what opera critics described as an absolutely captivating charisma of stage presence in acting as well as in vocal performance, enhanced by her training in dance (while still a high schooler) that gave her great poise on stage — and, of course, her striking beauty certainly couldn’t have hurt! She also developed a reputation for being able to take over at the last minute for ill performers, offering stunning performances in major last-minute substitutions. Fittingly, her last concert was performed here in Wilton at the library in 1995.

Flash forward two decades: Betty and Doug now have children and grandchildren living nearby them here in Wilton, and Betty is encouraged to join a Wilton writing group whose members meet regularly to hone writing skills and review each other’s work. The group’s objective is to encourage each member’s writing, and once again the community of Wilton encouraged Betty to move in a new direction and supported her, as she supported them, in the process. The group persuaded her to weave individual life-reflective pieces together and expand them to create this over 200-page autobiography. In fact, one of the members of that group, long-time Wilton resident and frequent Wilton Library presenter Bill Ziegler, became Betty’s editor for this autobiography project. It’s hard to imagine a better editor!

Woven through Betty’s autobiography is the story not only of a remarkable person of great talent but also of someone facing the challenges of a nation only beginning to emerge, a century after the Civil War, from the evils which that war was supposed to end. Betty and Doug each found their own way through those challenges, and they are each the first to acknowledge, as Betty does so well in her book, the role that the Wilton community played in helping them to do so. Daunting as those challenges were, Betty and Doug not only overcame them but did so with the stunning success that has enriched both their own lives and the life of this community — and indeed of our whole nation.

That’s a life accomplishment worthy of autobiography and one of which Wilton can also be very proud!

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.