- Nicole Villalpando American-Statesman Staff
On Nov. 8, 1981, Betty Beal knocked on the door of her Houston home to pick up her children from her soon-to-be ex-husband. She had learned earlier that day that she would be given full custody of the boys, who were 3 years old and 7 months.
He answered the door, shut it and then opened it again. He fired six shots: Five times at Beal and once at her 15-year-old nephew. Her parents and sister Bobbie watched from the car.
Jim Gay missed Beal’s nephew, but he killed 34-year-old Beal.
On Saturday, Luci Baines Johnson and her daughter Nicole Nugent Covert will honor both Betty and Bobbie Beal at Illuminate Austin: A Walk for Safe Families. Johnson and Covert are the honorary co-chairs of the event, which benefits SafePlace.
This is the first time in six years SafePlace has held this walk, and this time it’s being done at dusk. The path at the Mueller neighborhood’s Lake Park will be lined with luminarias as a symbol of bringing light to the issue of domestic violence and other forms of abuse. SafePlace, which provides shelter for 900 to 1,000 people a year and serves another 5,000 people annually, hopes to raise $125,000 through the event.
“What the walk always did for us was it was both a fundraiser and an awareness event,” says SafePlace Executive Director Julia Spann. “It talked about how people could get help and how people in the community can help. (Domestic violence) affects so many people.”
And while the Johnson and Beal families will walk for Betty Beal, Spann says, “You can substitute pretty much anyone, and it’s meaningful.”
The death of Beal changed the lives of everyone who loved her, including Johnson, who in her elementary school years spent time at the Beal house when she wasn’t in Washington with her dad before he became president.
“Betty was a light in my life,” Johnson says. “Her death brought a darkness to my life and to everyone who loved her.”
Johnson has fond memories of spending the night at the Beal house and Betty saying, “‘Let’s paint the ceiling, We could make it so bright and beautiful.’ And she would paint the ceiling,” Johnson says, who would help by holding the ladder.
She also remembers feeling isolated and homesick when she was in Washington, but it was Betty who made sure to call before every holiday or summer vacation to arrange a sleepover or another get-together back in Austin. “She made me feel loved and cared about,” Johnson says.
When it came time for Johnson to get married in the White House, “there was no doubt she’d be in my wedding.” Beal was one of 10 bridesmaids. And the groom’s cake was a chocolate bundt cake that the Beals always made for Johnson whenever she visited.
It later became known as Luci’s Chocolate Cake after Bobbie Beal submitted the recipe to a Houston Junior League cookbook, unbeknown to Johnson. About a year after Betty Beal’s death, Johnson would happen to open up that same cookbook to look for a chocolate cake recipe to cheer up her youngest daughter. There, Johnson found the recipe with her name on it.
“I hadn’t talked with Bobbie in many years, but when I was looking for something to help my daughter. … It’s like, ‘Let’s go paint the ceiling,’” Johnson says.
After Betty Beal’s death, Johnson, Betty’s other friends and the Beal family all wondered if they could have made a difference. Many of Betty Beal’s friends didn’t know what was happening behind closed doors: Beal’s oldest son was born when she was only five months pregnant after Gay threw Beal down the stairs. She became pregnant with her youngest son after being raped by her husband. She tried to get away, wanted to move back home to Austin, but she wouldn’t leave without the children, Bobbie Beal says.
Bobbie Beal watched her family fall apart. “It changed the dynamics of the world and our family,” Bobbie Beal says. Johnson made the funeral arrangements. “Luci took over; she made it happen,” Beal says. “We were all zombies.”
Betty Beal’s parents were never the same. Her children were raised by Gay’s parents. Bobbie Beal’s son, who had witnessed his aunt’s death, had nightmares for years. And Bobbie Beal became singularly focused on seeing that Gay was sent to prison. His release from the Allred Unit in Wichita Falls is scheduled for November 2015.
Johnson found healing in becoming involved in SafePlace. “It’s a catharsis, I guess, for the personal agony of losing somebody I loved dearly to domestic violence,” she says. “It’s one positive thing with the negative emotions.”
Johnson later learned she wasn’t the only one of Betty Beal’s friends who was volunteering with SafePlace. Once when Johnson was working on a radio public service announcement for SafePlace and needed to get the director’s approval, she called SafePlace. The voice on the other end of the line was a friend of hers and Betty’s when they were younger. “What are you doing?” Johnson asked her. “She said, ‘The same thing you’re doing. We have to get the word out. We have to help SafePlace.’”
Johnson introduced Bobbie Beal to SafePlace. In 2006, after Bobbie Beal had moved back to Austin, Johnson was being honored by SafePlace. Johnson asked Beal to sit at her table and let her know that she’d be talking about Betty.
“I met the most beautiful people that night,” Bobbie Beal says. “About a week later, I said, ‘OK, I’m ready to go.’”
By the next year, she was chairing parts of the event. She has been the event chair for the past four years. She’s also trained to be a legal advocate and to speak at events on behalf of SafePlace.
“The greatest healing I ever had was from SafePlace,” Beal says. “It’s the single greatest healer because I’m not alone anymore.”
Her family’s story could be anyone’s story, Beal says. “I just happen to know the details.”
“Betty was not about bitterness,” Johnson says. “It was not who she was. We are celebrating the extraordinary life she lived and that millions of victims of domestic violence have lived.”