Richard B. Betts
1927 – 2016
Richard Boulton Betts was well known in Belmont for his lifelong contributions to the town. This story of his life and accomplishments was first published in the Belmont Historical Society’s newsletter in September 2012 on the occasion of Richard’s 85th birthday..
It was back in the Saturday August 20, 1927 edition of the Belmont Citizen that Richard was first mentioned in print, when the paper reported, “Mr. and Mrs. Charles R. Betts of Slade Street are receiving congratulations on the birth of a son on August 17th at the Bay State Hospital, Brookline.” A few years earlier his family had settled on Slade Street when there were only four houses in the area and from the back porch you could look out and see the trolley cars running along Trapelo Road. The new neighborhood was once part of the large Chenery fruit orchard with lines of pear trees and bounded by a peach orchard. For Richard it became an ideal spot in which to grow up pitching marbles on the gravel sidewalk and playing kick-the-can out in the street.
His father Charles had come to Belmont around 1917 following his brothers George and Grosvenor who lived on Maple Street, and the three of them began a well-known contracting business under the name of Betts Brothers Builders Belmont. (The business is still carried on today by Richard’s younger brother Edmund’s son, Mark Betts.)
Richard’s father Charles was not only successful in the family business but also involved himself in town affairs, holding many positions over the years including Charter Town Meeting Member, Water Commissioner, Chairman of the New Citizens Committee, Water Board Chairman, Selectman for 12 consecutive years, and Chairman of the Board of Selectmen in 1951-52.
This spirit of public service was shared by Richard’s mother Isabelle Betts who also gave unselfishly of her time and energy to the community both at All Saints’ Church and as a dedicated Red Cross volunteer during the war years. Her life span touched three centuries and when she died in 2002 at the age of 106, she left a lasting impression on all those who knew her.
Richard grew up during a different time in Belmont’s history. He recalled those years as being “a time when the town had a much smaller and conservative Republican population. Belmont was a close-knit community where teachers, firemen, and policemen for the most part lived in town. We knew them and they certainly knew us! It was at this time that there were only 40 miles of streets with many open fields and woods to play in and lots of large working farms covered the landscape. A kind of golden age when the Victory Market on Trapelo Road advertised prime rib at 30 cents a pound, attending double features at The Strand Theatre for 10 cents was a popular Saturday ritual, the local dealership sold Chevrolet Touring Cars for $525, Fiske’s candy shop was a favorite place to spend your allowance, the streetcar fare to Harvard Square was still 5 cents and S.S. Piece was doing a booming business on Common Street with a fleet of horse drawn wagons for deliveries.”
Richard remembers attending the Josiah Kendall School on Beech Street and being greeted every day by Oscar Duncan who was the crossing guard, custodian and grounds keeper. Every Wednesday on half days Principal Chester Robinson who lived two doors down from Richard (on Slade Street) would show movies after school for 10 cents. Richard would sometimes use the money he had earned from his first job as a paperboy for the Belmont Herald in Cushing Square to attend. Richard also enjoyed membership in Troop 4 (now 304) of the Boy Scouts that met at the Methodist Church on Common Street. The group sometimes camped at the rustic cabin known as “Camp Betts.” Located in western Massachusetts, the building was constructed by his Uncle Grosvenor and the chimney was built by his Uncle George
In a series of interviews done in 2006 for the Belmont Historical Society, Richard spoke of many other vivid recollections from a past era. His early work for the Town of Belmont began when he was 15 years old. Due to the war era there was a shortage of meter readers and the Municipal Light Department remedied the situation by sending an employee to recruit a few students from the High School to work after class. As a meter reader, Richard quickly became acquainted with which houses had large dogs to be avoided, whose cellar doors were left open for easy access, and where the cutest girls in town lived! Covering the route on foot he gained first hand insight that was later valuable in his professional career in the Town Engineering Office where he worked for over 44 years.
As a youth he recalled a time when many services were provided by tradesmen who would wander through the streets and neighborhoods door-to-door looking to attract customers to take advantage of the home delivery of large blocks of ice, farm fresh eggs, heating coal sent down a chute into the basement, milk from local dairies, and fish. Other vendors came in turn to collect the garbage, worn out fabric for rags, and scrap paper to recycle. There was even a man who came around offering to sharpen your knives and scissors. Who can forget the favorite of all, a pony cart with its driver who sold ice cream!
“Holidays were times of special celebration when Mother would serve meals in the dining room on her good china that had been brought with her from England. At the foot of Drew Road there was a store that sold fireworks for the 4th of July, and Halloween was a time to test your courage by approaching the neighbor’s house and ‘pinning’ the doorbell to sound continuously. Around the New Year the annual Christmas tree would disappear from the curb and later be set ablaze in a bonfire managed by local youth.
It was a golden age in which to grow up and the quiet friendly small town of Belmont was the perfect location to experience the joys of childhood.”
Richard’s High School years were also filled with tales of a past era, and he remembers dancing at the Totem Pole and his days as a caddie at the Oakley Country Club where he was sometimes paid 40 cents in cash and two five cent candy bars for 18 holes! It was in his senior year that he bought his first car, a 1935 Chevrolet, although he was never allowed to drive it to school. Richard graduated in 1945 and spent one year serving his country in the Navy before he returned home and eventually married local girlfriend Barbara Campbell. He worked for the town during the day and at night attended Northeastern University earning his degree over a six-year period.
Richard spent over four decades in the Engineering Department, which included a promotion to Town Engineer in 1973. He is pictured here drafting a document in his small office on the second floor of the Town Hall just before his retirement in 1986. The Historical Society archives contain the Belmont Citizen newspaper article from 1987 that includes a copy of the retirement letter that Richard submitted to the Board of Selectmen. He concludes his remarks by writing; “No matter what the future brings I will never forget my lifelong association with the town and its people.” He goes on to describe Belmont as being “the greatest town in the state.”
In addition to serving the town in his professional capacity, Richard sat on numerous boards and committees and was an active member in many organizations over the years, becoming immersed in the history, facts, and legends that define this community. He soon became a popular guest speaker, informative lecturer, accomplished researcher, distinguished author, and top expert on “All Things Belmont.” This lifelong passion has seen him rewarded with many awards including most recently being recognized by the Belmont Historical Society at their Annual Meeting in 2011 with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
In addition to being past president of the organization, Richard has been Editor of the Quarterly Newsletter for over 40 years which translates into writing over 175 volumes that document the unique history of the people, places and events that make Belmont so special. It was in 1984 that Richard received the well-deserved title of official Town Historian which was accredited to him by the Board of Selectmen. Of this duty he writes; “What seemed to be just an honorary title has grown to what at times seems like a full time job!” He continues to document the many interesting correspondences that he receives from all across the country, with even an occasional international request for information on Belmont-related topics, in the Annual Town Report.
Richard was on the Planning Board for 12 years, six of which he served as Chairman, and has been a Town Meeting Member since his retirement, putting his wealth of knowledge into practical use in the present and has also been instrumental in the organization and success of many events which celebrate the town’s past. He has served as Chairman of the 125th Jubilee Committee, Honorary Parade Marshall of the Bicentennial parade, and recently as Co-Chairman of the Sesquicentennial Anniversary Committee. He is seen here ready to guide a group of enthusiastic residents on a fun and fact-filled ride through the streets and neighborhoods of his hometown describing the many local points of interest.
Richard continues to maintain an interest in Belmont’s 150 plus years and is in the final stages of revising his book, “The Streets of Belmont and How They Were Named.” The manuscript was first published back in 1974 when there were 368 roadways he began to trace the origins of. He has recently been working to update the contents to include missing information on former street names and add information on new streets. His initial research on the subject prompted him to read through every single issue of the Belmont Citizen beginning in the late 1800’s.
Richard still considers “Streets” his favorite book because, “It is a valuable chronological history of the development of the town and documents how the farms were broken up and the trolley tracks laid. The idea for my second book “Footsteps through Belmont” published in 1984 came about when the Historical Society wanted to reprint the Newsletters I had written. Instead, the concept of a walking tour of the town describing landmarks along the route was developed.” In 2000, Richard also collaborated with other members of the Historical Society to produce “Images of America Belmont,” a photographic history of the town adding to the series made popular by Arcadia Publishers.
Richard has been a longtime member of All Saints’ Church and has served over the years there as a teacher, member of the Vestry, and has held the positions of both Junior and Senior Warden. It was in 1988 that Richard became the official “Church Historian” and has since written a book detailing church history entitled the “History of All Saints’ Church, Belmont Massachusetts.”
Beginning in 1935, Richard has spent time each summer at the family cottage “Sea Cliff ” in Ipswich, where his significant interest in history also prompted the writing of the book “The History of Littleneck Ipswich Massachusetts” which was published in 1988.
Most recently Richard has gifted many items to the Belmont Historical Society including his 80-volume collection of historic scrapbooks that he has personally compiled over the years. He recalls that the “hobby” began around the time of Belmont’s Centennial when “I first read an article about the history of the Waverley Square area. I became so interested that I began to collect similar information. I cataloged and indexed various aspects of the town’s history and compiled a series of scrapbooks which included newspaper headlines, political ads, pictures, and articles about town events and residents.” He has also cataloged prominent Belmontians in a file that dates back to the 1930’s and contains well over 1200 entries.
Richard Boulton Betts’ legacy cannot be contained within scrapbooks no matter how numerous or filed in a well-organized card catalog. What he will leave behind is the gift of a life spent to inspire family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even newcomers to gain a greater appreciation for the community that supports them and the town that surrounds them. It has been an extreme pleasure to have come to know Richard over the years, to experience his passion to serve, and his commitment to each of us who share these unique four square miles of historic homes, familiar landmarks, and scenic open spaces.
We will long be in your debt!