Inspiring Okeechobee: Betty and Sonny Williamson

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble
Betty Williamson and her husband, Frank “Sonny” Williamson.

“He’s the wind beneath my wings,” said Betty Williamson of her husband, Frank “Sonny” Williamson.

“We’ve been married for 66 years, and it was love at first sight,” Betty explained. “That first date was the best date I ever had in my life, and I knew he was the one for me.”

Sonny laughingly said, “Those Okeechobee boys said, ‘We don’t like outside boys going with OUR girls,’ but you see who won the girl.”

Betty was born and raised in Okeechobee, the eighth child of William Frank and Sadie King Chandler. It was the Depression, explained Betty, and times were hard. Her mother had to go to work at the Markham Canning Plant when Betty was 12 because all the men were away at war. She said when her mother went to work, it eased the burden on the family somewhat, by bringing in some extra money. They were able to do some fun things, like go to the movies on Saturdays.

“Our modest wooden home was crowded with family,” Betty said. “We only owned two books — the Bible and a dictionary. My mother only had a fourth-grade education, but I remember she had something published in the Tampa Tribune. It was a poem about my oldest brother being in the Navy.”

She remembers how difficult things were for her mother, though. She worked hard at home, and then went to work at the canning plant. Betty clearly recalls seeing her mother’s tired face over the kerosene lamp. Her mother taught all her children that although they were poor, they could still be proud; that they had a name to protect, and they had better not disgrace it. Betty’s great-aunt was Louisana Chandler Raulerson, the first white woman in this area — the wife of Peter Raulerson. “My mother taught us to be punctual, keep our word and always be truthful,” said Betty.

Betty was the only one of the children to graduate from high school. The others all had to go to work. She said she found out later her oldest brother Frankie joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and sent the money he earned home to help the family. She said she always thought he just went away to have fun and be a grown-up. She didn’t realize he was doing it to help her until many years later.

After she graduated from high school — the ceremony was in the enclave of the courthouse — Betty met Sonny, who had recently moved to Okeechobee from Clearwater to work on a ranch with his father. Sonny had always wanted to join the service, Betty explained, but due to health problems, he was not able to enlist. Nine months after their first date, they were married, and their adventures together began.

While Sonny continued to work in ranching, Betty went to work at the courthouse, where she said she learned how important records are. “They are there for a reason. Without them, memories of the past can be lost.” Soon, though, the couple decided to move to Miami to earn money so Sonny could attend MIT in Boston, but it didn’t work out quite as planned because Betty got pregnant, and they decided to move home with the baby because there was a polio outbreak in the city. They never regretted it, though, they said. They raised their three children, Kim, Wes and Karen, here in Okeechobee on the ranch.

When most people think of Betty Williamson, they think of local history. She is one of the few people who actually knows the answers to most of the questions about things that happened in Okeechobee’s past. One of her favorite volunteer activities is to dress up in old-fashioned clothing and go into the local schools to tell children stories about Okeechobee’s history.

She was also instrumental in bringing the mural to the Okeechobee Freshman Campus. She said the location was not her idea. She had originally thought somewhere in the park might be good, but that didn’t work out. She was really excited to see it take shape there on the school, and said, “that was when the children from Central Elementary learned the difference between an artist and a painter.”

A historical project she is working on now is to honor a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. She said this young man served in both wars and never made it home, and she would like to see him honored in some way special, maybe have a street named after him. She explained, he didn’t have to go the second time, but he did it anyway. “I don’t think we should forget his sacrifice,” she said.

Currently, Betty is working on a book about a girl growing up during the Depression.

History is not Betty’s only interest though, she once put together an entire film production as an advertisement for Okeechobee County! She belonged to the Library Advisory Board for many years, taught Sunday school for 39 years at the First Baptist Church, taught G.A.’s (Girls in Action) for teen girls for several years, taught Brownie Girl Scouts, was president of the Fine Arts Club, wrote for The Palm Beach Post and wrote for Okeechobee the Magazine.

Sonny has always stayed busy, too. His son, Wes, joked, “Dad is like a lumberjack, jumping from board to board.” He served on the South Florida Water Management District board for eight years, the school board for four years and was the chairman of the Soil and Water Management Board. He said, “My kids always told me I was going to get splinters from all those boards.”

Betty and Sonny believe their marriage works because they support each other in their endeavors. When Sonny wanted to go to MIT, Betty didn’t hesitate. She was completely willing to go. When Betty wanted to make a movie, Sonny didn’t bat an eye. He said, “How can I help?” They are a team — from that first date almost 67 years ago right up until now. As the Bible said in Mark 10:8, “The two shall become one flesh, so they are no longer two but one flesh.”

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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