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Beloved Bishop dynamo celebrating 90th birthday

March 24, 2011

Betty Denton, Bishop's first female mayor, turns 90 today. Photo by Mike Bodine

She’s been called dynamic, determined, gracious, fierce, compassionate, resourceful, even rebellious.
She’s been labeled a firebrand, a trailblazer, a pioneer, an activist, a do-gooder and a go-getter.
At heart, she’s a devoted wife, mother and grandmother, and by trade a retired laboratory technologist and politician.
In reality, Bishop resident Betty Denton is a woman who defies description; someone who’s spent a life pursuing myriad dreams and goals, helping others to achieve theirs, and affecting lasting change for the good of the community.
This is clear: at age 90, Denton can look back at a life well-lived, the impact of which will live on long after she’s gone.
Denton was born in Chicago on March 24, 1921 to Edward and Margaret Spaeth, their only child.
She grew up the daughter of a “controlling mother” and a traveling salesman father who was away from home for as long as three months at a time. Denton attended a small private school until the sixth or seventh grade, a public school until ninth grade and then went away to attend Evanston Township High School until1938.
The Spaeth house was located three blocks from Lake Michigan, and Denton learned to swim – and fell in love with swimming – at an early age.
“I had a great deal of fun,” Denton said of her childhood. “I had lots of playmates, and I had a Collie dog that never left my side.”
Even so, all was not roses with an absentee father and demanding mother.
“I wanted to go away,” Denton said. “My father’s route was everything west of the Mississippi, so I thought if I went to California I would see him more often.”
At age 17, Denton moved out West to attend Mills College in Oakland, where she studied medical technology.
“I wanted to go to medical school, but there was only one school in the country that took women and it was very difficult to get into and I wasn’t that great of a scholar, so I settled for medical technology,” Denton said.
Why medicine appealed to her at all is something Denton chalks up to her affinity for science.
“I liked biology – I majored in it in college – and I just like doing things with my hands, working with my hands,” Denton said.
Whatever Denton’s initial motives for making the move out West, she gained something perhaps even better than any reunion or rebuke she’d been attempting: a sense of self.
“I learned to be independent and I learned the value of women in general,” Denton said. “I learned I could be anybody I wanted to be.”
At Mills College, an all-female school, the students were neither oppressed nor distracted by men, Denton explained.
Essentially, the women learned what they wanted to, not the skills they thought would make them more attractive wives.
Denton served as treasurer of her class for two years, and, as an indicator of things to come, was elected president of the senior class in 1942.
Denton then moved back to the Midwest, studying with the Michigan Department of Health to be a laboratory technologist and later taking a job as a lab tech at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
Ironically, her parents moved to Pasadena.
It was at the university that Denton met the love of her life, Bob, in 1950. The couple was married and moved to Bishop the same year, to take over a medical practice Bob’s father had set up on West Line Street for he and his son.
According to Denton, Bob’s father was located in Bridgeport, and his age became a factor in the decision to turn the business over to the newlyweds.
Betty and Bob ran the family practice from that location for another 58 years. Denton said that in the beginning, and for quite some time after, she helped out wherever she could – “doing anything necessary: keeping the books, doing the lab work, answering the phones.”
Over the next several years she also gave birth to and raised three children: Susan, Bill and Marge.
While the children grew up, Denton’s passion for community and service to others flourished.
It was her desire to see the City of Bishop install a public swimming pool that effectively launched her political career.
“I wanted a swimming pool and it didn’t seem to be moving fast enough as far as I was concerned,” Denton said, “so I volunteered to be on the Parks Commissions and we got the pool done.”
Denton’s reputation for getting things done – for bringing a woman’s voice to previously all-male discussions – spread quickly.
Wilma Muth, another of Bishop’s famous female pioneers, was serving on the City Council at the time, and about to relocate out of city limits. Muth opted to abdicate her seat – to Denton.
“I said OK because I think women should be represented in government,” Denton said. “I think women should take their place in any government.”
After filling out the remainder of Muth’s term, Denton ran for a seat on the council and won – proving yet again Bishop was ready to break down barriers and was more than happy to have someone like Denton holding the sledgehammer.
Amongst the members of the council, Denton was elected to serve as mayor for two years – representing a first for the city.
As mayor, Denton rode in Bishop’s first-ever Mule Days Parade in 1969 – atop a trained Hollywood mule belonging to that year’s grand marshal, Slim Pickens.
Denton had been on the board of the Bishop Chamber of Commerce when the now-world famous event was first proposed.
According to daughter Susan, Denton also worked hard during her City Council tenure for zoning for the City of Bishop, “something that many people objected to because there hadn’t been any zoning before.” She was also instrumental in establishing a modern sewage treatment plant.
Having wrapped up her civic duties, Denton soon turned her attention back to medicine, specifically renewing the technologist license she’d let lapse some time during the prior two decades.
Denton found herself taking an apprenticeship in the Northern Inyo Hospital laboratory to get re-licensed, which she did in 1975. Denton stayed on as a paid technologist until her 80th birthday.
With Bob plugging away at his private practice and Denton enjoying her own career, she also helped create one of the most important local resources for women in crisis, Wild Iris, in 1981.
“When we first came to Inyo County there was only one social worker in the county to take care of anybody that was in need, and it was a pretty big job,” Denton said. “When women came to the doctor’s office black and blue and battered, Bob would send them home to me for counseling” – something Denton knew a little about, having undergone psychoanalysis following an abusive relationship in college.
“So I knew very definitely we needed someone or something to take care of these women,” she said.
And so it was at the urging of two other women in the community that Denton hopped on board, hoping her name and reputation would lend further credibility to the effort and remove some of the stigma.
“In those days, anybody taking the woman’s side was labeled a homosexual or oddball,” she said. “I knew if I put my name on it, it would be better accepted.”
Wild Iris began that first year as a telephone in one of the founding members’ homes, receiving two calls for assistance.
Today, Wild Iris has offices in Bishop, Mammoth, Lone Pine and Coleville/Walker, and receives 2,000 calls a year.
Denton continued to play an active roll in the organization and on its board of directors until 2005.
She was also instrumental in establishing the League of Women Voters of the Eastern Sierra.
“Eunice Tiltson arrived in town – she was an avid League of Women Voters member – and asked me if I would want to start a group here,” Denton said. “Because I believe so firmly women should take a role in government I helped start a group here.”
Denton’s firm beliefs sometimes ran counter to her role as wife and homemaker. More accurately, her independent spirit proved a surprising outlet for certain resentments.
“By the time I finished with my City Council career, I was finished with my marriage,” she said.
Turns out Dr. Denton was spending too much time at work, so Betty signed up for a missionary assignment with the Presbyterian Church, packed her things and left the country.
She was given a choice of Egypt or India. She chose the latter, she said, “because India was farther away.”
While there, she worked as a lab technician in a Christian hospital. Bob, she said, eventually came to his senses and joined her in India, where the reunited couple joined the Volunteers in Mission organization, which took them on three-month-long furloughs to hospitals in countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Nepal, Taiwan, Lesotho and South Africa. The Dentons also traveled on the Dulos mission ship for three months.
In between the periods of travel and missionary work, the Dentons would return to Bishop where Bob worked at his practice and Betty resumed her role in the NIH lab on a per diem basis. Denton and her husband would continue to travel with Volunteers in Mission until 1990.
Somewhere in the intervening years, the couple also found time to adopt a fourth child, a Japanese girl named Kumiko Iino who today is the secretary to the president of the Bayer Corporation in Osaka.
Susan teaches first grade at Bishop Elementary School, Bill is a retired cook/trucker living in Truckee and Marge is a doctor in Roswell, N.M.
The Dentons have five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
And that’s pretty much how Denton has been spending the last 10 years since her retirement from NIH: enjoying the company of her children and their children, staying active in the church, cooking (she still loves to work with her hands) and swimming twice a week at Keough’s (deep down she’s still that kid at Lake Michigan).
Denton has accomplished much in nine decades, and much of it has been groundbreaking.
But to her, a life well-lived is about two things: “Family comes first; service comes next, any kind of service – to your community, to your neighbors, to anybody.”

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