Oak Park comes together to honor the late Betty White

When Lourdes Nicholls, senior media strategist at the Wednesday Journal, first presented the idea of planning a small 100th birthday celebration for Oak Park native Betty White to her colleague Melissa Elsmo, neither could have imagined almost 500 people would gather in front of Lake Street Theatre on a frigid January day to memorialize White.

White was born Jan. 17, 1922 at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park. She lived in an apartment at 220 Pleasant St. until she was 2 years old, when her family moved to California so her father could pursue his career as a salesman of industrial electronic parts.

Following the death of White Dec. 31, the small Oak Park event originally intended to be a birthday party gained national attention. Misinformation swirled after TMZ falsely reported that the event was called “Betty White Day” and was taking place on Martin Luther King Day.

The Betty White Centennial Celebration Jan. 15 included a proclamation by Oak Park Village President Vicki Scaman; commentary from Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Museum Frank Lipo; a performance of the Golden Girls theme song “Thank You For Being a Friend” by original singer and Oak Park resident Cindy Fee; 100 cake slices from Turano Baking Company; “Be Like Betty” photo opportunities, including cardboard cutouts and a light and balloon display that read “Thank You For Being A Friend”; free Red Vines, Betty White’s favorite candy, donated by the American Licorice Company; and an Animal Care League pet adoption event to reflect White’s love for animals.

Elsmo, who helped organize the day, got involved because of a personal love for White that stemmed from her childhood. “Throughout my childhood, my mom loved Golden Girls,” said Elsmo. “My mom would have the reruns on repeat in our house… My mom loved the show so much she talked about (the Golden Girls) like they were real people to her.”

Elsmo went on to describe the emotions that came with writing the special section of the Wednesday Journal dedicated to Betty White that came out Jan. 12. “It was very strangely emotional writing this section of the paper for me because I was asked to kick it off with a personal narrative, and I cried when I wrote it,” said Elsmo. “It was sort of like saying goodbye to my grandma a little bit again.”

Along with the Centennial Celebration, multiple local businesses participated in Betty White themed promotions and discounts. Businesses including BeerShop, Cucina Paradiso, Byline Bank, Tre Sorelle Ristorante, Sugar Fixe Patisserie, Jerusalem Cafe, Pumpkin Moon, Scratch n’ Sniff, Kalamata Kitchen, 99 Haus Balloons, and many others came up with clever ways to honor the late star.

Betty White “was such an icon in the TV and movie industry,” said Sophie Tillotson, an OPRF class of 2021 graduate and lover of the arts. “I think it’s important to celebrate someone who was such an activist and light in the community.”