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One hundred years of blessings: Betty Hansel is Shelter Island’s youngest centenarian

A century ago, one of Shelter Island’s grandest dames, Elizabeth (Betty) Hansel was born in Pittsburgh. By the time she was 18, her family had moved to Honolulu, and she was an undergraduate on break from Carnegie Mellon when she was awakened on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 by a piece of shrapnel flying through her bedroom.

“Believe it or not, it came through the window and landed there on the wall,” Betty said. “If I hadn’t been flat in bed I don’t know what would have happened.”  Surviving Pearl Harbor was just one piece of good luck for a woman who would have many more.

“I have been so blessed,” Betty said.  “Everything has gone right for me.”

Today, she lives in an antique-stuffed apartment at Peconic Landing in Greenport, with painted portraits and photographs of her large and handsome family perched and hanging on every flat surface.

Her family’s relationship to Shelter Island goes way back. Her husband’s grandfather worked for the railroads and visited the Island during a trip to Montauk on business in the late 19th century. “We’ve been hanging around for a long time,” she said.

She met Charles “Cap” Hansel, the man who would become her husband, on a transport ship of servicemen and civilians leaving Honolulu to cross the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco, a long and hazardous journey in the days after the Japanese attack.

Betty’s ship roommate, Shirley, asked Betty to be the fourth for a bridge game, and Betty instantly hit it off with the soldier across the card table.

Crossing the Pacific and in San Francisco, they had plenty of time to get to know each other, and Cap asked Betty to come to Arlington, Va. to meet his family. Although Betty was engaged to someone else, and Cap had a girlfriend, they divested themselves of boyfriend and girlfriend, and then decided to marry.

Betty’s brother Jack scrounged up enough gas ration tickets to drive her from Pittsburgh to Virginia to meet the Hansels. “Jack, who was six years older than me, said, ‘You’ve done enough gadding about, I’m just going to check these people out.’”  Satisfied with what he found, he left her with the Hansels and drove back to Pittsburgh.

Betty and Cap were married on July 1, 1942 at Grace Church in San Francisco.

Now expecting their first child, Betty settled into an apartment in San Francisco to wait for her new husband to return from his deployment in the Pacific. “There were six apartments, mainly Navy personnel, and I knew them all,” she said. “You were alone, but you weren’t alone.”

An information intelligence officer lived on the first floor, and although he couldn’t tell anyone where their men were, he could say that they were all right.

A few months after their first child, Kathryn, was born, Betty visited Shelter Island for the first time with her husband’s parents and her new baby. “Cap’s father had a beautiful yawl, the Capella. I wasn’t a sailor. I was told that Kathy and myself would sail down to Shelter Island with them from the American Yacht Club in Rye.” 

Her mother-in-law made a boat crib for Kathy, Betty recalled. “She had taken some sail and put grommets in it, and said we’d hang the crib from the mainsail and it will rock her.”

Betty related the rest of the conversation:

“You’re going to put her in that? You know her father hasn’t even seen her yet.”

“Don’t worry, her grandfather wouldn’t go out with her in rough seas.”

Kathryn was followed by four more: Gretchen, Betsy, Cap Jr. and Megan. All of them sailed. “The kids are so wonderful. I didn’t have a rotten egg in the barrel. And that’s true for the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren.”

Starting in the 1960s, the extended family occupied a pair of houses near the North Ferry, one of which was generally rented out. These were beloved homes to Kathryn and her four siblings, as well as 19 first cousins and various aunts and uncles. Known to all as “the Red House” and “the Brown House,” they stand to this day, although no longer red and brown.

“Today, if somebody said describe Shelter Island, I’d say, ‘It’s the most wonderful peaceful place and it has hardly changed in all these years,’” Betty said. “A place to be treasured.”

She played a lot of tennis, and finding no source of tennis supplies on the Island, Betty decided to do something about it. She opened Our Racquet, a shop that carried gifts, clothes, tennis and golf supplies for men, women and children.

She hired many friends and neighbors, including Jackie Tuttle, Jill Tuttle Albiani, Gina Thompson and Audrey Smithers. “It was a meeting place for so many people. I would serve wine at 5 o’clock.”

Gov. Hugh Carey’s daughters, Helen and Marianne, worked as stock girls at Our Racquet, and one day he stopped by after work (he was a sitting governor at the time) to pick them up. Betty wouldn’t have it.

“Gov. Carey came with his motorcycle escort and damned if he didn’t park in front of my store. I told him, ‘Your girls get home a half an hour after you do. People will wonder why all those motorcycles are parked in front of my store … I wouldn’t let them go.”

Betty ran Our Racquet for almost 20 years, until her husband became ill and she focused on caring for him.

During a cold winter in the late 1980s, Cap was in the hospital in Greenport, and Betty decided to cross on the ferry to see him, in spite of thick ice.

The ferry took a long loop to Greenport along the coast of Shelter Island, cutting across near the jetty and down the creek on the Greenport side because the ice was so bad.

Halfway across Betty spotted her dog out on the ice, having followed her car. “I yelled up at the captain, ‘That’s my dog out there on a floe of ice.”

“He got on, he can get off,” the captain replied, and sure enough the dog jumped from one ice floe to another and got back to the house.

When Cap was in a Boston hospital for an operation, the entire family gathered at their daughter Megan’s home nearby. “All my kids and their wives, the whole family packed in, and some slept under the dining room table. “I‘ve had a very supportive family all my life.”

During Cap’s long recuperation, his room had windows with a view of the outfield in Fenway Park. “Up until that time I was a Yankees fan, but we could hear the whole game being played and we could see the outfield. The kids gave us binoculars, so we could watch the game. We did that for four months and I became a Red Sox fan.”

After her husband passed away, Betty continued to live on Shelter Island, surrounded by family, and still contributing to the quality of life.

She was active with the Shelter Island Historical Society, founded a group for women called The Progress Club, and established a nondenominational cremation garden at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

Now living in Greenport, she keeps an eye on events here and in the world. She said she has decided not to vote again for Donald Trump, a mistake she says she made in the last presidential election, and one that she admits caused some controversy in her family.

And she has become a Mets fan. “I think the Mets are going to do something this year,” Betty said. “They’ve been building their team. They’re going to show a lot of other teams that they have a lot of guts.”

Lightning Round — Betty Hansel

What do you always have with you? Memories. All my jewelry I’ve already given to my kids.

Favorite place on Shelter Island? Louie’s Beach is wonderful.

When was the last time you were elated? My birthday party the other night. I wasn’t going to go! I got home at 10:30 at night, and I was so wound up I couldn’t fall asleep. The next night, the same thing.

When was the last time you were afraid? I’m scared to death of thunder and lightning. I take a chair and go into the closet and shut the door.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The Fourth of July. I remember sitting in front of the post office in the Center with my children, all waving our flags. 

Favorite movie or book? I’m a mystery reader, I like James Patterson very much.

Favorite food? Baked potato.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Jean Brechter did so much for the community, and Marian Brownlie still does.