Farewell, my brilliant friend

We met in ’72 in the freshman dorms at UW Madison. We were 18, each assigned to roommates we wouldn’t have chosen if given a say. But, as our rooms faced each other, Betti “BT” Iwanski and I made the hall that connected us a gathering hub, and we developed a friendship.
BT was straight-A smart. Her 4.0 report cards awed me because the grades weren’t in easy subjects (like my comm arts). She took chem, physics, calc. She’d chosen an engineering major, no easy feat for women in the ‘70s.
We roomed together pretty much all the way through college. As sophomores, we joined an alternative co-op (think commune) in which members supposedly Did Everything – cleaning, cooking, finance, maintenance. Which meant that Nobody Did Anything. People’s dogs shit in the hallways. Drains clogged with soap and hair. Dishware was, um, egg-crusted. The ‘hey man, mellow out’ vibe was in vogue, but Betti wasn’t one to ‘mellow’ to such neglect – so we left.
As juniors, we rented a house with a cool group of friends. Rarely one for conformity, Betti got a job buffing motorbikes at a cycle shop and became involved with its owner, who was the head of Madison’s CC Riders. She quit school in her senior year, bought a motorcycle, and moved into the back of the shop. We were all surprised. But Betti knew what she was doing—learning about metals and mechanical systems.
In ’76, I graduated and left for Chicago, then NYC. As fate would have it, Betti married someone and landed up in Queens. Queens may have been nearby, but it was far from my Manhattan life, and we didn’t see each other often.
One night, Betti came to me in a dream and said she was leaving New York because she couldn’t stand the ‘imperfection of its systems’. It was the most vivid dream I’ve ever had, and to this day I believe we communicated in some altered state. I soon found out that she had indeed left and returned to Madison to finish her mechanical engineering degree.
We saw each other a few times in the ‘80s. BT came to my aid when I was on-my-own pregnant (and she was newly-divorced). Later, I visited her in Wisconsin so she could meet my newborn. Eventually, I got caught up in mom duties, and she got a corporate engineering job in Minneapolis. Through the ‘90s and aughts, we didn’t get together. We’d always written to each other, but our letters grew less frequent.
Even so, we never completely lost touch. I ‘surprised’ her in 2002 by sending a greeting through Minnesota’s live “Prairie Home Companion” radio hour, a message she heard while tuned in with her new husband Kevin. She told him “I think that message is for me!”
We started writing letters again, and caught up through photos. I marveled at how beautiful BT looked in one photo, posed—with her now-white hair and a string of pearls—in an embrace with a fabricated HVAC duct. I envied her love affair with metals and sustainable systems, and I admired her commitment to local communities.
When she was in her late fifties, Betti had a stroke. She fiercely struggled to recover brain function, and eventually regained her speech. She sometimes struggled to express her ideas, which, for her, must have been difficult. But she worked at it tirelessly.
2019In 2019, we met again for a trip back to Madison. We revisited our old haunts—the co-op, the house, the dorm where we met. It was the last time I was to see her.
Betti was my brilliant friend. She loved challenge and discovery. She was driven to follow the hard path, and do it her own way. And she lifted herself back up from life events that would have surely broken another.
I wish she’d had more time on the earth she loved so deeply.
(Betti Iwanski, April 24, 1953-May 8, 2023)

This entry was posted in Loose Chunks of Debris, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.