Bette Cowley

Bette Cowley

Bette Cowley

ALTAMONT — A spirited woman who loved — her husband, her children, her home, her flowers, her village — with passion, Bette Cowley remained independent and vibrant until her death on Sunday, May 6, 2018. She died in the home she loved. She was 91.

“A friend said she was like Annie Oakley, shooting from the hip,” said her daughter, Kathleen Cowley. “She had a lot of spirit. She had her own style … She wasn’t wearing leisure suits like everyone else in the 1970s. Dad made jewelry just for her.”

Mrs. Cowley was born in Sizerville, Pennsylvania on Sept. 4, 1926 to William Kephart and Bessie Eileen (née Clark) Kephart, one of seven children. She had one sister and five brothers.

“Her father did anything he could to get through the Depression,” said Kathleen Cowley. “He worked in a coal mine and hunted deer so his family could eat … My grandfather was a super hunter.”

Bette Cowley’s mother was a homemaker and ran a guest house for hunters.

Ms. Cowley said of Bette and her siblings, “They had no shoes in the summer, and they would walk the railroad tracks to pick up coal.”

Her grandmother, Ms. Cowley said, would come across rattlesnakes when walking in the mountains up the hill to pasture land. She’d kill the snakes and preserve their rattles to amuse her babies.

“My mom hunted rattlesnakes,” said Ed Cowley, Bette’s oldest son. “She was as fearless as she was frugal. A child of the Depression she used to gather spilled coal along the railroad tracks to help heat the house. Though poor, the family roots went back to two folks that came over on the Mayflower.”

Bette Cowley graduated from high school in Youngstown, New York where her family had moved. She worked at an ice-cream and soda stand there. She was a petite and beautiful young woman. “One night, 15 guys showed up to walk her home,” said Kathleen Cowley.

After high school, during World War II, Mrs. Cowley worked at a prisoner-of-war camp, doing inventory, her daughter said.

She moved to New York City to study acting and worked as a model. “That’s where she met my dad,” said Ms. Cowley.

Ed Cowley had returned from fighting in World War II — he was a decorated infantryman who had served under General George Patton in some of the war’s worst European battles — and had come to New York City.

Bette Cowley had, just after her husband died in 2014 at the age of 89, told the story of how they’d met. Mr. Cowley had knocked on the door of a Greenwich Village apartment he had been told by an Army buddy belonged to an artist, Jimmy Andrews, but the apartment had been sublet.

“Eddy knocked at the door of this little apartment and there I was,” said Mrs. Cowley. That was in December 1948.

“We had our first date on New Year’s at the Beaux Arts Ball in the Village,” she recalled. “We were married three months later.” The Cowleys married at City Hall.

One of the reasons the marriage lasted for over 65 years, Bette Cowley said, was, “We had fun.”

On that first New Year’s date, the couple had noticed discarded Christmas trees along the sidewalk. “We hadn’t had Christmas together so we brought one of the trees back to my little apartment and propped it up,” Mrs. Cowley said. “We had a party. People kept coming. We dated all night — we had drinks and food — and all the next day until two or three the following night … .”

“They were true partners,” said Kathleen Cowley of her parents. “Dad would come home from work and discuss the day’s events … Mom wasn’t submissive. She was his confidante.”

After Ed Cowley was hired by the University at Albany — he headed the art department and oversaw its move to the uptown campus — the Cowleys settled in Altamont, on a shoulder of the Helderberg escarpment just above the village.

They designed and built their house themselves. The inside of every room was graced with Mr. Cowley’s art. And, looking out the windows, Mrs. Cowley’s artistry was visible in the form of gardens she created.

“A passionate gardener, Bette transformed pitiful clay and rock conditions at the house into beautiful perennial gardens,” said her son, Ed Cowley. “She was the plant historian able to recall when and where they came from, including those smuggled into the country from Ireland and elsewhere.  Bette drew the landscape designs for the Guilderland High School and for many years wrote a Sunday Times Union gardening column. She edited always my father’s writings with positive effects.”

Mr. Cowley’s studio was dominated with a house he built of stained glass. One of the walls of the house is filled with all sorts of blooming flowers, and was dedicated to his wife. That wall is in more subtle hues than the walls on either side. “Mostly, hers whispers,” Mr. Cowley had said.

Mrs. Cowley created bouquets of wildflowers for weddings. “She catered to people that didn’t want their flowers to look too arranged,” said Kathleen Cowley. “She’d travel to get cuttings for new plants. It was her passion,” she said of her mother’s gardening.

Even in her later years, after she lost her eyesight to macular degeneration, Mrs. Cowley continued to garden. “She hid her blindness for five years,” said her daughter. “She had things counted out; she knew where things were.”

“She was a great mom,” said Kathleen Cowley.

Her brother, Paul, agreed, saying, “She was the best mother a son could have.”

“We had great meals,” her daughter went on. “She cooked everything from scratch. We ate as a family every night,” she said of herself, her sister, and their three brothers.

“Never ‘Elizabeth,’ Bette was amazing in the kitchen,” said her son, Ed Cowley. “She was a tough restaurant customer. Always critical, why pay money to ‘eat out’ when dinner was always better at home.”

Mrs. Cowley cooked for gatherings beyond the family’s. “For many years, she cooked dinner for the entire Altamont Horseshoe League,” said Ed Cowley. “Rave reviews!”

“I was about 16 when our families connected,” said Gavin Warner. “We were all crazy about Bette. She was a fantastic cook. She made phenomenal meatballs, chili, potato soup.”

Mr. Warner also said of the Cowleys, “They taught us how to party … Altamont parties were staid. Everything was looser at the Cowleys. They were artists and they had the most interesting people there.”

“My brothers and Gavin and Sam Bell would sing bluegrass, sitting around the fireplace,” said Kathleen Cowley, recalling some of the parties.

The Cowleys held a “slab party” after they had poured the concrete on which they would build their house. A good harvest called for a cucumber festival. The couple became renowned for their outdoor art parties when Mr. Cowley hung his paintings from trees on their property.

“They were ready to celebrate anything. There was no such thing as ordinary,” said Mr. Warner of the Cowleys’ world view. “If you thought something was ordinary, you weren’t looking at it hard enough.”

The Cowleys could focus their energies on serious matters, too. They were central to shaping Altamont as it exists today.

“Bette and Ed collaborated on all their projects,” said Ed Cowley. “They were a true love team for over 60 years.  My Dad’s interest for Altamont’s architecture went up an additional level when they received a joint award for restoring a house on Maple Avenue.

“Village politics were difficult after the D&H Railroad discontinued passenger service making the train station ‘obsolete.’ Few folks now remember the Altamont Planning Association. Years ago, they saved the train station. Decades later, other generations stepped up and completed the million-dollar restoration. Bette Cowley was a large part of that early effort.”

After the village board in 1962 didn’t have majority support for buying the historic train station in the center of Altamont — the Delaware & Hudson Railroad was no longer using it — the Cowleys joined with other citizens in forming the Altamont Planning Association.

Association members, which also included Gavin Warner’s late father, who had been mayor, sold bonds and spent their own money to buy the station for $5,000 and set about renovating it.

“Bette was the driving force behind that,” said Mr. Warner of the association’s work. “She had an innate aesthetic sense.” The saved train station has since become the permanent home of the Altamont Free Library.

The Cowleys activism spread beyond the village to world affairs. They traveled to the nation’s capital to protest the Vietnam War. “She was proud of all the peace moratoriums she went to,” said Kathleen Cowley.

“Part of the beauty of that couple was how they talked about hard things,” said Mr. Warner.

At the end of her husband’s life, as he suffered from Alzheimer’s, Mrs. Cowley, despite her own blindness, resolved that he would stay in their home.

“She was absolutely determined. She promised him she wouldn’t put him in a nursing home,” said Kathleen Cowley. “She sacrificed a lot to have Dad home.”

Her body, like his, has been donated to Albany Medical Center. “She said Dad was an educator all his life and their bodies should be used for that,” said Kathleen Cowley.

Through tears, she went on, “She said she was ready to go. She had a great life.”

“Bette cherished all her children,” said Ed Cowley. “And when older, as adults, she was always there for them especially in times of financial difficulty. The greater the need, the greater were her efforts and generosity. We are all going to miss her.”

****

Bette Cowley is survived by her two sons, Edward Paul Cowley III and his wife, Karen Cowley, of Altamont; and Paul Edward Cowley, of White Oak, Georgia and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and his children, Billy, Kevin, and Cierra Cowley; and her two daughters, Kathleen Cowley, of Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts and her children Louis Hall and his wife, Amandine, and their children Finnegan Edward, Elliot Rey, and Felix William, Brian Patrick Hall, Emily Reich, and William Reich; and Doris Jalbert and her husband, Dave, from Coventry, Rhode Island and children Alexandra Sherer, Samantha Smith and her husband, Greg, and their son Elliot, and Jameson Sherer and his wife, Rebecca, who are expecting twin girls, and Kara Jalbert and Cory Jalbert.

She is also survived by her 97-year-old sister, Mary Gersch of Spring Valley, California and her four daughters, Paula Darland and her stepdaughter, Jocelyn Darland; Hedy Haun her son derreck Hancock and his two twin daughters and her daughter Samantha Shelton; Leona Purczynski and her daughter, Kerrie Ann Gaeir, and her son and daughter and her son Jesse Purczynski and his son; Teresa Gersch and her daughter Holly Rios and her three sons, and her stepchildren, Shane, John, and Connie.

She is survived, too, by her 89-year-old bother, Stanley Kephart of Tillamook Oregon and his four sons, Bill and his son, Danny, and his six children, the late Jim Kephart’s two sons, Tim and his son and daughter; and Sherry and her one daughter and two sons; the late Chuck Kephart’s children Glenna Lindemann and her son and two daughters, Charlene Kells and her daughter and son, Chuck Jr. and his twin daughters, Donna Tavaris and her son and Tracy Kephart and her son; Don Kephart’s children Donna Kephart McCammon and her daughter Rachel, Debbie Smith her son and daughter.

Bette Cowley’s husband, Edward Paul Cowley Jr., died before her, as did their son, Billy; her parents, William Kephart and Bessie Eileen Clark Kephart; and her brothers, Chuck, Fran, Howard, and Don.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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