The Morris Animal Foundation funds animal health research, and White has served on their Board of Directors for 43 years. At the luncheon in her honor, White said, “Allowing me to participate, I am the one who is honored.”
Later in an interview in a hotel suite, White said, “Animals have always been such a deep part of my life, in my heart all these years.”
White laughs and adds, “Getting an award from Sandra Bullock (the Screen Actor’s Guild Award) is one thing. But I couldn’t believe all these great veterinarians, the people from P&G pet care and all the great people from the pet world in the room, and Dr. Olson too.”
She’s referring to Morris Animal Foundation’s President and CEO Dr. Patricia Olson, “We’ve been wanting to give Betty and award like this for some time but Betty didn’t want it to be honored for her celebrity,” she says. “I will tell you this award wasn’t for Betty White the actress, it’s for Betty White the person.”
Olson said that decades ago White pushed that Morris fund research to better understand pain relief for animals, and how analgesics might be used. “She lobbied other trustees and pushed hard to get it done,” says Olson. “I’ve been a veterinarian for about as long as Betty has been a Trustee. I can tell you, and I know, Betty’s fingerprint is on so much of what we take for granted in veterinary medicine today. She is very much hands on. She rolls up her sleeves and works as much as any other Trustee, maybe more than some.”
It’s astounding, over 40 years with one non-profit. Actually, that’s two non-profits. She’s been involved with the Los Angeles Zoo for about the same number of years. Apparently, she’s as loyal as any dog. “I’m not sure that I’m all that loyal – it’s just that I showed up for a Board Meeting over 40 years ago, and they can’t get rid of me,” says White “The thing about Morris is that your readers may not know is that all their pets have been impacted in some way by research funded by the Morris Animal Foundation. And we help wildlife as well.”
One of the Morris Animal Foundation functions is to oversee the Mountain Gorilla project once headed by primatologist Dian Fossey of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame. “Betty has been a major advocate of that program and has helped us with funding,” says Olson. “In fact, Betty has funded so much over the years and has provided wonderful leadership. She’s truly so knowledgeable.”
Olson relates a recent visit to White’s home. Olson’s daughter was there as well. Her daughter is a pulmonary critical specialist physician, has a Master’s degree in Public Health and is an engineer. “Not to brag, but my daughter is pretty smart, yet she was just blown away by Betty’s intelligent questions and knowledge.”
“Listen, I’ve been doing this for a long time,” says White, who says her interest in animals began before she can really recall. “It probably did begin way back in the womb,” she says. “My mother was just as bad as I am. I was the lucky little kid who had parents who would bring home an animal and say, ‘Oh Betty, we found it; can we keep it?”
She even hosted a show called “The Pet Set” (1971-72). No TV performer has ever been so enduring. She starred in “Life with Elizabeth,” (1953-55) “Password” with her late husband Allen Ludden (throughout the 1960’s into the 1970’s), “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1973-77) and the “Golden Girls” (1985-1992). Recently, she enjoyed a recurring role on “Boston Legal” (2005-2008). Last year, some say she stole the film “The Proposal” from Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. It’s fun to YouTube highlights of her various recent talk show appearances, with about every show host from Bonnie Hunt, to Ellen to Jay Leno to Craig Ferguson to David Letterman.
White is known for her willingness to do anything for a laugh, culminating in the recent Super Bowl commercial for a candy bar. Most viewer polls named the spot as the most popular during the game. “They called me and asked me about it, and I thought ‘Why not?” says White. “I got to gently lay down in an icy cold pool of mud, not so bad compared to the poor stunt person pushed into the mud. I’m not sure that’s fair; she did all the work and I got the laugh.”
The commercial also starred Abe Vigoda (of the old “Barney Miller” show). I wondered if the two octogenarian actors are now an item. “I sure hope so,” she says and laughs. “I’ve known Abe for years because many years ago, I helped him get a new Springer Spaniel after he lost one.”
Asked to sum up her feelings into two words, she says, “Lucky and grateful.” Funny, that’s how the millions entertained by White feel as well.
©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services