In any other setting, no one would have batted an eye. As the band struck up the first notes of Moon River, an attractive couple, she in an elegant pearl-covered gown, he in a tuxedo, stepped onto the dance floor and proceeded to swirl, dip, and glide their way through the soothing strains of the beautiful song.
Except this wasn’t just any setting. The lady dancing was Betty Patterson, and it was her 100th birthday. Her daughter and son-in-law, Jane and Tommy Suggs, had gathered nearly 200 of Betty’s friends and admirers to celebrate a woman who has redefined what it means to be 100.
Betty Shannon Patterson was born on Oct. 14, 1922, in Jefferson, South Carolina, which sits about 55 miles south of Charlotte in Chesterfield County. The town, which was originally called Millersville, was founded in 1760 by Betty’s maternal ancestors, the Millers.
Like each of her two elder siblings, Betty was born at home. “People didn’t talk about being pregnant back then, so the story goes that when my brother and sister got home from school they were surprised to discover that they had a brand-new baby sister,” says Betty with a laugh. “I was meant to be Elizabeth, but the woman who gave my name to the county knew that my parents were going to call me Betty so that’s what she told them. It was so much trouble to go back and change it that I ended up with Betty as my legal name.”
Jefferson’s economy was tied to the 2,000-acre Brewer Gold Mine, which opened in 1828. Betty’s father owned a hardware store in town — he’d opened it to serve the mine — and the family lived on a farm, where they raised, among other things, dairy cows.
Betty’s early years in Jefferson were idyllic — she has fond memories of exploring, alone, on her bike for hours at a time — but grounded in the reality of the times. “During the Depression, men from all over the region came to Jefferson to look for work in the mines,” she says. “Word got out that we had food, so they’d show up at the door with their spoons, which they all seemed to carry with them. My mother would give them a mixture of milk and brewer’s yeast.” Betty also recalls seeing the men using their spoons to dig into dirt fields where the soil was rich with edible minerals. “They only took it from very specific places,” she says. “It’s a sad memory.”
Betty met her future husband, New Jersey native Bill Patterson, on a January night in 1943. “Bill was stationed at Camp Sutton, in North Carolina, and had planned a dance for his men in Pageland,” says Betty. “As my friends and I were waiting for the bus to take us there, a handsome man in a staff car drove up and said he had room for four. He finagled me into the front seat with him and we struck up a conversation. We were married the following September.”
Just two days into their honeymoon, Bill got a telegram from the U.S. Army informing him of his upcoming deployment. After driving to New Jersey so Bill could see his mother, the couple took the train to New York. There Betty, not knowing when or if she’d see him again, kissed her brand-new husband goodbye. An hour later, a lonely but determined Betty manhandled all their luggage back onto the train for the trip back to New Jersey. She picked up the car from Bill’s mother’s house and drove herself back to South Carolina. She was 20 years old; that first deployment lasted more than two years.
Once Bill was out of the Army and had started his career working in marketing for an oil company, the couple spent the next stage of their lives raising their four children — Bill, Jane, Ann, and John. As was common in the 1950s and ’60s, the company transferred the family to a variety of cities, including Baltimore, Charlotte, and New York. Jane recalls that no matter where they lived, her mother’s energy and fearlessness was legendary.
“When we lived in New York she’d think nothing of putting her children in the car and making the 12-hour drive to see her mother in South Carolina,” she says with a laugh. “In Charlotte, when the road iced, she was the only person who could get the car up the hill without sliding.” Betty was active, too, handling all the house cleaning and yard work on her own and following Jack LaLanne’s exercise program on television. When she had her last baby at 40, she left the hospital in pre-pregnancy clothes. “I don’t recall her actively dieting, but our dinners were always healthy,” says Jane. “Baked potatoes instead of mashed, salad every night, and no biscuits or dessert. She was starting us off with healthy habits, and today I’m grateful.”
After a happy retirement, Betty and Bill relocated to Greenville in 1985, where their daughter Ann lived; in 1997, the couple moved to Columbia. Sadly, Bill’s health soon began to deteriorate, and Betty spent her days caring for him as his condition worsened. When Bill died in 2005, Betty was 82.
With no one to care for, Betty found herself with many, many hours to fill. Jane suggested she consider giving ballroom dancing a try. “I wasn’t sure what I expected, but, by golly she did it,” says Jane. “She hasn’t looked back.”
Betty’s love affair with ballroom dancing began with a spur-of-the-moment stop at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio on Devine Street. “I walked in one day after lunch and found the place empty so I waited,” says Betty. “After about 30 minutes, John Glandon walked out. A month later, we competed in Raleigh, and I won top newcomer.”
Since then, Betty has made dancing a priority, practicing with John several times a week and entering as many competitions as she can; to date, she has danced in dozens of competitive events in North Carolina, New York City, Las Vegas, Texas, Florida, and Virginia. The competitions are physically challenging. Betty and John often work their way through 100 different dances — the foxtrot, samba, cha-cha, and waltz are just a few — over the course of a single competition.
Although Betty first started dancing as a way to fill time, she’s discovered that the benefits go well beyond occupying hours. “Dance improves posture, muscle strength, and balance as well as mental focus and acuity,” says John, who has worked with Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, and Paul McCartney. “The hardest thing for someone like Betty is for her to respect her limitations — she wants to go and go!”
Hima Dalal of Cora Physical Therapy, who began treating Betty after a broken hip, agrees. “Betty is in incredible shape for a woman her age, but it’s not by mistake,” she says. “Dance has sustained her ability to move well and safely, which in turn improves her psychological confidence. It has also given her life more meaning. All of those factors are vital to anyone who wants to age well.” Hima also notes that dance was Betty’s motivation to recover from a fall. “In the back of her mind, she knew that all this hard work would get her back to dancing, and it kept her going,” she says.
Working with Hima, Betty and Jane have created a program that includes not just physical training, but hydration, nutrition, and sleep as well. “It all works together,” says Jane. “It’s hard to believe she’s 100!”
Betty’s birthday party was filled with memories of a life well-lived. Photographs graced tables, Betty’s favorite flowers filled vases, and smilax tumbled down a staircase. As guests sipped Champagne and greeted Betty, a band well-versed in standards played songs of the day. But the highlight was Betty’s waltz with John, which took place on a specially designed dance floor that had been decorated with Betty’s monogram. “When we were first discussing the idea of a birthday party for Mom, a lot of our friends who know her mentioned that they’d never had the opportunity to see her dance,” said Jane. “We realized it would be a wonderful way to let her shine.”
And shine she did, in her favorite competition gown and even high heels. After her dance with John, Betty stayed on the dance floor, twirling and smiling through encores with several guests. As usual, her energy astounded Jane. “By 9 p.m. I’d assumed she’d be ready to go, but she would have nothing of it,” she says. “We not only stayed up until 2 a.m., but she was ready for family brunch the next day. She really is amazing.”
Though Betty Patterson comes from a long line of long-lived relatives, she does work hard to stay healthy. Here are her top tips:
Get enough sleep, even if it means scheduling an afternoon nap. Jane says that Betty often gets sick within days of returning from a dance competition, where she tends to stay up late and get up early.
Hydrate. Betty carries a water bottle wherever she goes and uses a hydration schedule to keep from getting dehydrated.
Find an activity and make it your passion.
Make your own happiness. If you don’t have family or friends nearby, find a local or online group that shares your interests.
If you’re in pain, see a specialist. Betty began physical therapy after an injury; today, she keeps back pain at bay with regular workouts.
Find a workout that takes your limitations into account. Betty does her cardio on a recumbent bike, which takes pressure off of her hips and back.
Don’t skimp on strength, balance, and stretching. Regular walking is terrific, but maintaining flexibility and range of motion allows you to move more safely through your regular routine.