Betty, 96, is a class apart
Elizabeth “Betty” Musson Kawaley had her hair straightened the day her ship was supposed to leave for university in Canada.
“It was what you did in those days if you were going somewhere special,” the 96-year-old remembered.
But it was 1939, and the Second World War had just been declared.
“There were worries that it was too risky to travel,” she said.
The trip to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada was postponed two or three times.
“By the time I was able to go, I had to have my hair straightened all over again,” she said.
At night, Mrs Kawaley’s vessel travelled in total darkness, to avoid attracting the enemy.
However, she thinks she probably wasn’t scared.
“I don’t remember being worried,” said the Sandys resident. “I am usually pretty calm and positive. I was treated beautifully.”
She arrived safely, and today is among the university’s oldest alumni, having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in arts in 1943.
Queen’s principal and vice- chancellor Daniel Woolf, presented her with a special certificate of appreciation this month, when he visited the island.
Eva Hodgson was also recognised, having graduated 71 years ago.
In university, Mrs Kawaley became best friends with her three roommates, Anna Wheal, Elnora Sheppard and Ruth Cordy, on her first day there.
They always ate in the cafeteria together, and she stayed with their families during school holidays.
However, her time in Kingston wasn’t always easy.
“Some people in Kingston were appalled to see me,” Mrs Kawaley said.
“They’d never seen a black person before. But my roommates, or sisters as I think of them, would link arms with me and say, come along.
“Later, as the years passed, more people of colour came to the university.”
After she graduated and returned to Bermuda, she remained in contact with her old roommates, frequently visiting one another.
In 1959, the three Canadian women came to Bermuda to see her, and inadvertently played a role in the Theatre Boycott.
“I didn’t have any room for them in my house,” she said. “So I put them up with my neighbours Gerald and Izola Harvey.”
Unknown to Mrs Kawaley, the Harveys ran the Progressive Group and were busy planning the 1959 Theatre Boycott to desegregate local theatres.
Seeing that the Canadian visitors were sympathetic to their cause, the Harveys brought them into the secret, and asked if they would help purchase a copy machine for making posters.
“Nobody would have suspected them as being involved in the boycott because they were white Canadians, and by the time they boycott got under way they’d left the island,” Mrs Kawaley’s daughter, Kathy Kawaley, said.
“If the members of the Progressive Group had bought the equipment they could have been traced.
“They never told my mother about their involvement fearing it would put her in danger.”
“In fact, I only found out very recently,” Mrs Kawaley said.
Mrs Kawaley was born on Long Bird Island in St David’s, the second of seven children.
When she was a child, the family moved to Angle Street in Hamilton.
Her father, Horace Musson, was an engineer and ran a machine shop and her mother was a homemaker.
She grew up surrounded by books.
“We were blessed in having books everywhere,” Mrs Kawaley said. “Myself and my cousins all loved books.”
She was a good student in primary school, and won a scholarship to study at the Berkeley Institute.
“My parents could not afford the six pence a week in school fees,” she said.
At 17, she won the first Bermuda Scholarship for Girls, a groundbreaking scholarship open to the girl with the highest exam score, regardless of race.
“Most scholarships in those days were just for white people,” her daughter, Kathy, explained.
Mrs Kawaley’s cousin, Marion Trott DeJean, actually scored the highest on the scholarship exam that year, and Mrs Kawaley the second highest, but it was decided that at 16, Ms Trott was still too young to go away to university. Mrs Kawaley, won the award instead, and her cousin followed her to Queen’s the next year.
“Marion was an extremely good student,” Mrs Kawaley said. “She was the better of the two of us.”
After university, she spent a year studying French in Paris, and then taught French at the Berkeley Institute, Sandys Secondary School and Warwick Secondary School.
“I come across people a lot of times that say ‘Oh yes, Mrs Kawaley, she was my favourite teacher’,” her granddaughter, Katrina Kawaley-Lathan, said, also a Queen’s graduate and a teacher.
“People tell me a little bit of French and say, ‘oh yes, your grandmother taught me that’.”
Kathy said her mother had a reputation for being a very kind and caring teacher.
It was at Berkeley that she met her future husband Solomon Kawaley, a science teacher originally from Sierra Leone.
“The late Dame Marjorie Bean met him in London, and convinced him to come to Bermuda,” her daughter said.
“He was a very ambitious science and maths teacher, and Berkeley wanted to have a science lab. He was invited to come to Berkeley to teach. So that is where they met.”
They were married on Easter Day, April 13, 1952, and had three children, Ian, Kathy and Sylvia.
Mr Kawaley died in 2013, just two days short of the couple’s 61st wedding anniversary.
Not long after taking early retirement at 60, Mrs Kawaley started writing a book about her early childhood on Long Bird Island.
During the Second World War, the US Army paved over the little island to build a military base.
Parts of that former base have become the LF Wade Airport.
“She was writing it on an old typewriter and faxing it across to the editor,” her daughter said.
“It was several years in the making, because she wrote everything meticulously by hand first, then typed it over. Then she faxed it over and they sent it back with edits.”
She released the Island That Disappeared in 1995, and a second edition in 2013, with some additional stories.
“Recently, I have been regretting that we didn’t go there [where she lived on Long Bird Island], stand there and say, this is where our house was,” Mrs Kawaley said.
Today, Mrs Kawaley says she likes to do as little as possible.
“I just like to relax,” she said.
• Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Tuesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or firstname.lastname@example.org with their full name, contact details and the reason you are suggesting them
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