Betty Niceley, April 15, 1934, to February 13, 2000
by Barbara Pierce
Very early in the 1999 public meeting of the NFB Board of Directors, Betty Niceley, who had been a member of that board since 1985, sought the floor to make the following statement:
Dr. Maurer, I would like to say that I am not seeking reelection to the Board this time. I want to say first of all that this decision in no way indicates a lessening of my commitment to this organization. I have served on the Board for fourteen years, and I have been deeply touched by the trust that has been placed in me in electing me to this position.
I feel the need to spend a lot more time in affiliate-building in my own state and to devote my attention to the Braille concerns of the Federation. I am grateful for the wisdom of our beloved Dr. Jernigan, who put his confidence in you, Dr. Maurer, as our leader. I want to pledge to you and to the future leaders of this organization my willingness to do whatever I can as you lead us to greater heights of success, which I know you will do.
Later in July Betty retired from a career of twenty-eight years with the Kentucky Department for the Blind. In early November she was elected President of the International Council on English Braille, and following that election everyone expected that her plan to devote her energies to building the Kentucky affiliate and to working for the health and propagation of Braille were now in place.
Then, just before Thanksgiving, Betty suffered a stroke, which was actually caused by a defective heart valve damaged years before by rheumatic fever. On February 8 she underwent open-heart surgery, from which she seemed to be recovering. Then sadly, Sunday morning, February 13, her damaged heart gave up, and she died.
It's hard to imagine the Federation without Betty. She became a member in 1967, and by 1979 she was President of the Kentucky affiliate. When the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille was established in 1983, she became its first and, until her death, its only President. She served as Vice Chairperson of the Braille Authority of North America. In 1997 she received the Jacobus tenBroek award.
But beyond and undergirding all the offices, responsibilities, and honors, Betty was a cheerful soldier who would put her hand to any task for the Federation that needed to be done and see to it that those around her had a good time while they were doing their work. She was an optimist and an extravert who believed in people, especially young people, and she was always willing to go the extra mile and overlook the shortcomings of those who were trying to learn how to lead.
In early November of 1978 Betty attended an NFB leadership seminar. For several reasons, including the fact that the meeting began on All Saints Day, the group clamored to be named the Saintly Seminar--an impulse that Dr. Jernigan resisted mightily. Eventually the weight of reasons for the group's preference beat down his opposition, and one of many facts about the seminar marshaled by seminarians during discussions was that Betty Niceley was a member, and, while niceness was not exactly saintliness, she was so very nice that it ought to count for something. This was not the decisive argument, but it was irrefutable that Betty was simply one of the kindest, most considerate people any of us had ever met.
Those qualities didn't make her a push-over, however. She fought like a tiger to protect Kentucky's separate agency for the blind. She stood up to the American Printing House for the Blind when she thought they were in the wrong. When city officials engaged in unfair practices against the blind, they could count on Betty to stand up in meetings, write letters, and talk to the press about the injustice. Her absolute integrity brought her respect even among her opponents, and often those opponents stayed to become her friends.
Betty loved a party. The final night of the 1984 convention in Phoenix the Kentucky affiliate hosted a mint julep party to get the organization in the mood to come to Louisville the following year. And before the memorable 1985 convention, Betty, the President of the host affiliate, announced that the big dance that year would be a genuine southern ball. Ladies were encouraged to wear real ball gowns, and many did. It was a glorious evening.
President Maurer smiles down at Betty Niceley while she and
Cranmer face the camera at the May 8, 1999 celebration in Louisville.
But Betty's triumph, and perhaps the finest hour of the blind of Kentucky, was the May 8, 1999, celebration of the accomplishments of blind people. This was the evening after the University of Louisville awarded Dr. Maurer an honorary degree. Representatives from city and state government, private and public organizations, and educational institutions gathered to pay tribute to what blind people, working together, have accomplished in the past and can accomplish in the future. Federationists from eighteen states were present to celebrate. The evening was filled with elegance and joy, and at the center, organizing and announcing everything with poise and radiance, was Betty Niceley.
She is survived by her husband Charles, their daughter Sharon, her stepdaughter Barbara, two brothers, and seven grandchildren. Betty also leaves behind her a large circle of Federation friends and colleagues who love and remember her still and for whom the world will be a bit grayer without her. As Betty would say, "Pay-back time." She brightened the world for us; now it's time for us to pass it on.