Spotlight on Betty Puleston


She opened her home to the world

The life and times of Betty Puleston

By Chuck Anderson
When Betty Puleston met her husband
Dennis at a sailing race near Rye,
New York, she was in the water, having
fallen overboard. Dennis, ever the
gentleman, jumped from the officials’
boat to save her. He said, “How are
you?” She replied, “How are you?”
Betty was impressed with the dashing
naval architect and yachtsman
who was to sail the South Seas, dine
with cannibals, and dally with Samoan
maidens, as revealed in his book Blue
Water Vagabond. When they married
in 1939, she thought she might be
going on similar jaunts around the
world with her husband.
However, that dream was to be put
on hold for awhile. There was a war
going on, and her husband was developing
an amphibious landing craft that
would be used in Okinawa and the
Normandy Landing.
Betty and her husband, who had
taken a job with Brookhaven Laboratory
after the war, moved to a compound
in the hamlet of Brookhaven
and proceeded to raise a family of four
children, born three years apart: Dennis
Edward, Jennifer, Pete, and Sally.
While her husband was establishing
himself as a naturalist, author, artist,
and founding chairman of the Environmental
Defense Fund, Betty pursued
her own interests. She and Helen Stark
started a play school for local children.
When some local youngsters were
breaking windows in the Brookhaven
railroad station, Betty founded the
Junior Village Association. Soon she
and the youngsters were replacing
the broken windows, and went on to
plant trees at Squassex Landing. Offering
pony rides and puppetry, the Cub
Scout leader began to attract youth
from the surrounding area.
The Puleston compound became a
hub of creative energy, intellectual
activity, and social interaction. Betty
would take a group of youngsters from
the country and introduce them to the
city, going to museums and Central
Park. Then she would take a group of
inner-city children and bring them out
to the country for pony rides and puppet
shows. Betty and Bob Starke held
several horse shows, complete with
an announcer from Madison Square
Garden. During the International Year
of the Child, Betty provided space
and facilities for the birth of Common
Thread, a banner-making project
inspired by artist Michael Ince that
would spread around the world and
end with a presentation at the United
Nations. In later years, refugees from
Sierra Leone, Croatia, and other countries
would be invited to spend time at
the Puleston compound.
Along with the refugees from other
countries and children from North Bellport
and Harlem, another group found
their way to Betty’s home. Led by George
Stoney, whom Betty had met many
years before at the Henry Street Settlement
House in New York City, there
were Milos Forman and Ivan Passer
from Czechoslovakia; and Colin Lowe,
Dalton Muir, and many others from the
National Film Board of Canada.
After her children had grown, Betty
finally got to travel the world with
family friend and filmmaker George
Stoney, working on various projects
that more often than not had a social
context: Planned parenthood in India
and China, educational reform in Brazil,
representing the USIA in Nigeria,
Turkey and Mexico and helping people
with special needs in Appalachia.
Recently, Betty and Lynne Jackson
produced a film called Race or Reason:
The Bellport Dilemma, which was
screened at the Museum of Modern Art
in New York, and will be shown locally
at the Old South Haven Presbyterian
Church on June 8 at 7 p.m.In 1970,
there was an outbreak of hostilities
between African-American and
Caucasian students at Bellport High
School that forced school officials to
call in the police and close school for
over a week.

Betty opened her home
to students and their parents, giving

them a place to air their grievances.
Video cameras were used to facilitate
dialogue. At the time, Betty described
the use of video as “a way for people
to get to know each other better.” In
the following weeks, teams of youths
interviewed neighbors from the community,
which would be played back to
residents to other parts of town. Thus
a dialogue was established. A meeting
was held at a local church, sponsored
by the Better Relations Committee
for Constructive Action, a group of
about thirty high school students that
had grown out of the meetings held at
Betty’s house.

In 1996, Betty donated the use of
land and equipment to the Hamlet
Organic Garden, a cooperative farm
that has enriched the lives of many
local families. She also served as a
chairperson for her alma mater, The
City and Country School in New York.
On Tuesday morning, April 28, this
generous woman with a great laugh
and an amazing hug, this woman who
liked to talk to strangers, this woman
who opened her home and her heart to
the world, took her final trip at the age
of 91. At her side were her family, and
her lifelong friend George, who had
taken the last train out of New York
that night to be with her at the end.
Betty is predeceased by her husband
Dennis, who died in 2001 at the age of
95, and their first-born, archaeologist
Dennis Edward, who died when he was
struck by lightning on top of El Castillo
pyramid at Chichen Itza, Yucatan in
1978. She is survived by two daughters,
Jennifer Clement of Brookhaven
and Sally McIntosh of New Brunswick,
Canada, and a son, Pete, also of New
Brunswick, seven gifted and talented
grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren,
who will no doubt make their
mark on the world. She is also survived
by two sisters, Nancy Lee of Bellport
and Patricia Barron, of S. Dartmouth,
One of Betty’s favorite stories was
the Grimm Brothers’ tale of the stone
soup. In the story, some travelers
come to a village during a famine, carrying
an empty pot. The villagers are
unwilling to share any of their food.
The travelers fill the pot with water,
and drop a large stone into it and place
it over a fire in the village square. One
of the villagers asks the travelers what
they are doing, and are told they are
making stone soup, which would taste
better if it had a little garnish and
spices. The villagers begin to come
forward with ingredients for the soup,
and finally a delicious meal is enjoyed
by all. The moral: By working together,
with everyone contributing what they
can, a greater good is achieved. Betty
lived by this principle.
A “stone soup” celebration of Betty’s
life is planned for May 23 at the Puleston
compound. Perhaps her life and
times may be summed up by the words
of a poet, who said, “Let me live in a
house by the side of the road and be a
friend to man.” ■



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