‘I did other great things besides being a mom. But the best was being their mother and them being my children and it was number one on my list of things I’ve accomplished in my life.’
Betty Koty Walker; journalist, artist, cancer patients’ helper, she and husband Jim recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.
Renowned South Carolina watercolor artist Betty Koty Walker passed away peacefully on January 4, 2021 at the age of 93. Devoted wife of Dr. James L. Walker and active mother of four sons, she ended her life surrounded by them at her bedside at the Presbyterian Community in Clinton, SC, where she was cared for by a loving and attentive staff.
Betty was born Elizabeth Marie Koty in Bristol, Virginia, to Ernest and Marie Koty on September 9, 1927. She moved with her family to Columbia, South Carolina at the age of seven. A child of the Depression, Betty loved the movies, where she often spent Saturday afternoons watching three in a row.
For her 12th birthday, Betty’s received a typewriter. She mastered it lickety-split, her new skill coming in handy at Columbia High, where she became first a student reporter, then editor-in-chief of her school paper. She loved reporting the news and went to to receive a degree in journalism at the University of South Carolina. While still at college,Betty was hired part-time as a reporter for South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State.
After graduation, she joined the staff of The State as the paper’s first woman reporter, covering the cultural scene in Columbia. Her biggest scoop came in 1952, while her new husband was stationed overseas serving in the Korean War. After receiving a tip that newly-elected 32nd President of the United States would be relaxing after his campaign at the Augusta National Golf Club, Betty talked her editor into paying to send her there to cover it. It paid off, with Betty becoming the first female reporter in America granted an interview with its new president-elect, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Betty retired from journalism after her husband Jim returned from the Korean War and established a medical practice in Clinton, South Carolina.
Jim and Betty’s four sons -- Jimmy, Bill, George and Andy -- were born between 1954 and 1964.
While raising her boys, Betty maintained an active social life with a tight circle of friends in bridge, book and sewing clubs, playing tennis and wallpapering each other’s homes. These Clinton women, who embraced Betty soon after she moved to Clinton as the wife of its newest doctor in 1953, remained very close companions for nearly seven decades.
In the spring of 1974 Betty, a lifelong doodler while talking on the telephone, helped Clinton organize its first-ever arts festival. Fearing there wouldn’t be enough entries, Betty dug out her only painting, a 35-year-old watercolor she’d made during her one art class at the University of South Carolina. She was shocked when her painting won first place, was widely praised and both the judges and her friends encouraged her to do something with her talent.
Soon after, Betty developed malignant breast cancer. After recovering from a radical mastectomy, she quietly became a long-term volunteer with the Reach to Recovery program of the American Cancer Society. For years, she privately served other women recovering from breast surgery, with support, home visits and offering hope for a life beyond cancer.
As for her own life beyond cancer, with her children leaving the nest and no idea how much time she had left, Betty set about pursuing art. In her late forties, with fellow Clinton artist Genie Wilder, Betty began traveling to take watercolor classes and weekend seminars. The two women quickly became fast friends and serious painting buddies, encouraging and critiquing each other’s paintings as they both worked tirelessly to achieve mastery of one of painting’s most difficult mediums and becoming well-known Southern artists in the process.
Betty’s watercolors were known for evoking feelings of wonder, grace and sensitivity while celebrating the mystical relationship between light and color. In hues ranging from muted pastels to vibrant jewel tones to magical darks, her work brought vibrant new life to familiar South Carolina scenes, as well as celebrating the faraway regions she visited in the United States and abroad.
Betty’s paintings can be found in private and corporate collections throughout the United States. She won numerous awards in more than 100 one-person and group shows from the East Coast to California, including National Watercolor Oklahoma, Georgia National Watercolor, Southern Watercolor. In New York her work has been exhibited at such prestigious venues as the Salmagundi Art Club on Fifth Avenue and the Catherine Lorillard Wolfe Exhibition.
At the age of 71, twenty-five years after picking up a brush, Betty achieved a long-sought career-capping goal when she joined the ranks of the most accomplished watercolor artists in the United States. With her invitation to become a lifetime Signature Member of the American Watercolor Society, Betty became the oldest inductee granted the rare achievement and remains one of less than 500 American artists to hold this honor.
Her final exhibition of paintings came just a year ago, in December 2019. Betty brought her work home with a retrospective exhibition of some of her best paintings at the Presbyterian Community in Clinton, SC.
Betty loved her friends. She loved to play tennis. She loved reading obituaries. She was happiest at the beach, feeding the birds, listening the sound of the surf as she took long walks at the water’s edge and collected seashells.
During the final ten months of her life, Covid restrictions abruptly ended Betty’s highly anticipated, seven-day-a-week visits by her husband Jim to her residence at Presbyterian Community. An exception was made on December 2, 2020, when Betty and Jim were finally able to reunite for a brief hour to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary at a table for two in the chapel of the Presbyterian Community, face-to-face once again, with cake, champagne, flowers, laughter and memories of a long and happy life together.
During the last years of her life, Betty suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. According to her devoted nurse Kaylin Wilson, who became a constant companion and great friend during Betty’s final months in isolation, her memory loss proved an unexpected blessing during the pandemic. She told one of Betty’s sons, “She knows nothing of the bad that’s going on right now. You and your brothers just visited in her mind and your dad is ‘busy as always.’ She’s not depressed or feeling alone as most would suspect. Because her mind lives with all the memories that your family has given her over the years! Hold on to that. Let it give you comfort and try not to worry and stress because she’s not! She told me, ‘I did other great things besides being a mom. But the best was being their mother and them being my children and it was number one on my list of things I’ve accomplished in my life.’”
Betty was member of Broad Street United Methodist Church, where she served on the altar guild. She was also a den mother for the Cub Scouts, served on the Board of Directors for the Palmetto Bank in Clinton, SC,
was a lifelong member of Chi Omega sorority, as well as a member of the National Watercolor Society and the South Carolina Watercolor Society.
Betty is survived by her husband of 70 years, Dr. James L. Walker, and their four sons -- Jimmy, his children Graham and Hannah, Bill, his husband Kelly and their children Elizabeth and James, George, his wife Tonya and their son Dawson, Andy and his wife Elizabeth and their children Ginny, Andrew and Margaret. She is survived as well by her brother, Ernest Lee Koty, Jr. and his children Marylee and Dow.
Plans for a post-Covid memorial service will be announced at a later date.