Elizabeth L. 'Betty' Walter, retired Towson High School educator, and actress who led a writers' group, dies

Elizabeth L. “Betty” Walter, a former Towson High School English and drama teacher who was also a well-known local comedic actress and founder and leader of the Wednesday Writers group, died Aug. 30 from cardio obstructive pulmonary disease at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

The Edenwald retirement community resident, who formerly lived in Timonium, was 86.

“Betty was larger than life and commanded a room,” said Jo Ann Murphy of Cockeysville, who got to know Ms. Walter when she worked in community relations for Baltimore County Public Schools’ central office.

“She had a great sense of irreverence whose favorite saying was, ‘She was a nice, nice girl and it killed her.’ Betty was just that kind of person,” Ms. Murphy said.

Todd Pearthree, a Baltimore actor and director who worked with Ms. Walter, lives in Mount Vernon and is a longtime friend.

“Betty was funny and entertaining and had so much energy, God love her,” Mr. Pearthree said. “She let no grass grow under her feet, and was a great friend and a fabulous person.”

“Betty was a nice woman but she could be brutally honest but very loving,” said John Hutchinson, a former Baltimore County public school principal who retired in 1997 from Fullerton Elementary School and was also a member of the Wednesday Writers group.

“She had a characteristic that most people don’t have. She was a good listener,” he said. “A month or so later she’d come and ask about your son-in-law or some other family member. She remembered. Betty was the kind of person who was always knitting stories together in her mind.”

The former Elizabeth Lloyd Walter was the daughter of Dr. Henry Maynard Walter, a dentist, and Elizabeth Lloyd — she was named for her mother — and she was also the stepdaughter of Catherine Shipley.

Her mother, who died from tuberculosis when Ms. Walter was 16, would later become the subject of her memoir, “I Never Sang for My Mother.”

Born in Baltimore and raised in Glen Burnie, Ms. Walter was a 1949 graduate of the old Hannah More Academy in Owings Mills. She earned a bachelor’s degree from what is now McDaniel College and a master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia University.

Ms. Walter began her teaching career at Southern High School and later, during her 25-year career at Towson High School, taught English, creative writing and drama.

She retired from Milford Mill High School in the early 1990s.

Ms. Walter worked with Randy Dase, a longtime Towson High social studies teacher, basketball, soccer and lacrosse coach, and students and wrote scripts for “High School Sports Scene,” which aired on the Baltimore County Public Schools television station.

“She became part of where kids got a chance to perform,” Ms. Murphy said. “She was the idea person behind it, not the technical person. She brought a lot of kids along, saw potential in them, and made them superstars.”

“I had always been in sports, and we were both in two different worlds. Even though she was in her 80s, I still thought that she was real hip,” said Mr. Dase, a Lutherville resident who has been on the Towson High faculty for 42 years.

“As a teacher, she had a special gift and was passionate about her work. Betty could connect with students who had varied abilities and they learned a great deal. She could engage them and get them to pick up a book,” he said.

“And when she walked into a room, it instantly brightened up. She had such a tremendous wit, and students she had years ago kept up with her,” he said. “They had a great love for her.”

Joan Linder, who graduated from Towson High in 1972, was one of her English students. “She was a fabulous teacher who made it fun to learn English,” she said. “English is a tough subject to teach, but she was so good at it.”

Ms. Walter was also a fixture on the Baltimore theater scene.

“She came snooping one day because she was writing an article,” Mr. Pearthree recalled. “Two, three years later, I needed someone to play Albert’s mother in ‘Bye-Bye Birdie,’ which is a non-singing role. She hadn’t been on a stage in 20 years, but auditioned, jumped in with both feet, and knocked it out of the park,” he said. “She was this middle-aged, skilled character actor.”

Another of Ms. Walter’s favorite roles was that of Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux from “Steel Magnolias,” played by Shirley MacLaine in the film version.

“I know she played that three or four times,” Mr. Pearthree said.

Suzanne Pratt, a Mount Washington resident, was directing at Theatre Hopkins when she became acquainted with Ms. Walter.

“For a stretch, Bette was one of our best-loved performers. I cast her in comic roles, and one of her favorites was playing the jaded cook in ‘The Women,’” Ms. Pratt said. “It’s a great cameo role and only one scene, but Bette was happy doing it and loved that role.”

The genesis for the Wednesday Writers group, which she founded in 1997, came out of her teaching a writing course at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where she got students to write about their experiences.

The group, whose members range from their 60s to 80s, meets weekly at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church. It was guided by Ms. Walter’s principle of “no red ink,” which meant a writer’s work would remain intact.

Mr. Hutchinson, who said he never wrote anything of consequence, joined the group in 2000, and after the first meeting Ms. Walter shouted to him, “You have to come back.”

“When a person mentioned they had suffered, she’d say, ‘John, I’ve spent the night. I’ve been there,’ ” Mr. Hutchinson said. “She had suffered in her life and could relate to them.”

It was at the urging of Mr. Hutchinson and fellow member Martha Glecker that Ms. Walter udertook publishing her memoir, “I Never Sang For My Mother,” which she had written 19 years earlier for her grandchildren.

A central theme centers on her mother’s five-year battle with tuberculosis and being confined to a sanatorium near Lake Placid, N.Y. When she was visiting at home, she could have no physical contact with her daughter.

“I know she never hugged me,” Ms.Walter wrote in the book, which was published in 2016. “I couldn’t even be around her that often. I remember when I was in the second grade and I had whooping cough, so I was whooping [coughing] down the hall and all my mother could do was watch me. I’ll never forget the look on her face because she couldn’t touch me.

“At that age, I thought that she didn’t want to help me,’” she wrote. “What I want to do now is to resolve this and sing for my mother, and I think I have done that.”

“It pulls at your heart. It’s a touching story,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

“But there are other stories such of her days at Hannah More, and time at Western Maryland College. There’s a story of the time she and her father were visiting Lake Placid and there was Albert Schweitzer eating breakfast in the dining room,” he said. “There are a lot of touching stories about her life in the book.”

A memorial service for Ms. Walter will be held at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 3 at Edenwald, 800 Southerly Road, Towson.

She is survived by two sons, Douglas Walter Miller of Rockport, Maine, and Kenneth Garrison Miller of Atlanta; and three grandchildren. Marriages to Joe Corwell and Dean Miller ended in divorce.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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