Life Story / Obituary
Betty Jane Irish Zwicker lived a remarkable life with a loving dedication to family, friends and community.
Betty was born November 20, 1919 in Pontiac, MI to Lura J. (Ludwick) Irish, a housewife and Glenn L. Irish, a barber. Her devoted brother, Manley was eleven years her senior. As a child, Betty experienced a rather ‘privileged’ life that was short-lived due to significant losses before she turned eleven – the most impactful being the death of her father. She found consolation through school classes – particularly those of music, art and mathematics – as well as from spending summers on her grandparents’ farm in Pewamo, Michigan.
Schoolmates and teachers became Betty’s extended family as she and so many others were suddenly thrusted into poverty during the Depression. In having a faithful, creative and entrepreneurial mother as well as a sharp, inquisitive mind with a ‘can-do’ attitude, Betty would experience many wonderful and commendable journeys.
Her passion for photography while in high school led Betty to meeting the Roosevelts as they campaigned by train through Pontiac. Being an early riser, she found herself alone with Eleanor Roosevelt. Both shared why they loved to get up so early in the morning. Eleanor then inquired as to Betty’s interests and ambitions – expressing kind support and advice towards the thoughtful girl who wanted to be a teacher. Betty would later take a snapshot of the campaign party that would eventually be published in her yearbook.
By age seventeen, Betty left home to live in an apartment above a pharmacy to work as an accountant for the pharmacist – a family friend who hired her for her math skills and especially for her legible, excellent penmanship. It is noteworthy that a couple of years prior, Betty’s attention quickly focused upon one of her mother’s boarders, Karl (Carl) Zwicker, a handsome young man who was six years her senior and employed by General Motors as a tool and die maker and troubleshooter. He also served others as a labor union organizer. However, as far as Karl was concern, GM was a temporary means of income as his sights remained on becoming a priest in Vancouver, British Colombia. After Betty’s kept promise to Karl to graduate from high school and then Karl’s last-minute cancelling of his scheduled trip to B.C., their mutual admiration turned into a sweet engagement. Karl and Betty married on Valentine’s Day in 1939. The justice of the peace was fully paid with 2-sacks of previously picked potatoes by Karl as insisted upon by the officiate.
Betty was not one to shy away from opportunity or to speak up either before or after being married. She often emphasized that “one must project oneself in this life’ and to “use diplomacy” with people. Besides becoming the first woman loan officer of a bank, Betty was given charge of hiring and training female tellers; first working for Detroit Bank, then Pontiac State Bank. Her connections to Pontiac’s affluent as a child and through her work would play a significant, supportive role for what laid ahead for her and Karl as they worked alongside the three Reuther Brothers to help found the United Auto Workers (UAW).
Serving as secretary to the women’s local union auxiliary, Betty penned an underground newsletter and moved about with Karl to designated ‘safe havens’ whenever necessary during these tumultuous UAW years. She fondly recalled such a time with a Jewish family – the Solomons – who graciously opened their beautiful home to the couple and kept Betty and Karl comfortably hidden with a car tucked out of sight for months. Betty recalled of this family with great love; mindful of their undaunting faith and firm convictions. As did many women who supported the unions, Betty cooked, serviced, prayed, and marched with others whenever there was a strike or rally to raise working conditions or living standards and would not take a backseat to injustices. Vic Reuther was especially fond of her lamb dish cooked with bitters of anise. To help raise funds for striking families during an especially long strike, Betty with her mother, Karl, and Manley ran a restaurant located on Dixie Highway near Waterford, Michigan; often catering to the late-night boxing crowd, serving up steaks to the likes of Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey and their respective entourages – all who firmly backed strikers.
Her varied experiences helped her keep her wits during the 1943 Detroit race riots. Betty and her co-workers quickly sheltered a black security guard in the bank’s secured vault so violent crowds could not harm him, then hid customers and themselves in the basement as windows shattered and fires were lit. Sometime in the wee hours of the next morning, all quietly and quickly exited as one through a back door; able to return over a week later.
In 1949, Betty was awarded a trip to Cuba by the bank for helping to boost economic growth during the postwar years. She continued to work for many years in the banking industry; periodically taking business courses and classes to stay current with systems and machines. All the while, she also kept busy with raising family.
Betty was a wonderful cook and baker of fruit pies; readily using fresh garden vegetables Karl tended or those kept stored in their dirt basement’s straw-laden root cellar. She was enthusiastically involved with her children’s school activities and delighted to lead/work with others to support the children’s Parent-Teacher Association. As an accomplished seamstress, she made exquisite clothes and was known to disassemble a store-bought dress to create templates for duplicate dresses then sew the original back together. She frequently would pelt out almost any tune on an old upright piano for her children to eagerly hear or sing. Her delicious, witty sense of humor and her ability to heartily laugh at herself provided joy and great lessons for her children and others.
Kalamazoo’s General Motors brought forth new opportunities for Betty and Karl in 1966. Betty would later describe her most rewarding full-time position as executive bookkeeper/secretary for Kalamazoo’s McKercher Rehabilitation Center. This organization provided for those deemed as mentally challenged with a means for income, and most importantly, a sense of dignity. She also provided financial services as a consultant for Upjohn Pharmaceuticals.
Betty and Karl would eventually relocate to Gulf Shores, Alabama where they lived for 28 years. Betty continued to work a few years more for local banks and an oil business before doing volunteer services for a nearby hospital. Her children and grandchildren have numerous, endearing memories of Betty and Karl living life on the Bon Secour River with its direct access to bayous, Bon Secour and Mobile Bays and the Gulf of Mexico. The couple remained activists and attended various community meetings – this time primarily for clean waterways – and enjoyed southern living with good neighbors.
As Karl faced quadruple-bypass surgery at age 90, Betty and Karl decided to be married by a Catholic priest in the hospital’s chapel the day prior surgery. Family, hospital staff and close neighbors including a former nun collaborated to make this a most joyful, memorable time. Eventually the couple returned to Michigan for their remaining years. Betty and Karl served as great inspirations to their children, grandchildren and countless others as they shared their insightful wisdom, generosity, joyfulness in living, a sense of gratitude and unconditional love.
With officiated blessings given and family present to bid farewell, Betty Jane Irish Zwicker passed away September 17, 2017 in Portage, MI. She was preceded in death by her husband of nearly 72 years, Karl Martin Emmanuel Zwicker, on February 12, 2011. Also preceding in death were a brother, Manley Irish (1976), a grandson, Benjamin Prihoda (2003) and a son, Mark Zwicker (2015). Surviving are two daughters and their spouses, Virginia and John Prihoda, and Gail and Richard Warren along with grandsons, Nicholas (Joni) Prihoda, Drs. Aaron (Jessica) Warren, Bryan (Lindsay) Warren, Jason Karl Warren, and Jeremiah (Jamie) Zwicker, and four great-grandchildren, Vivian Jane and Benjamin Prihoda, and Clara and Adam Richard Warren.
St. Mary’s Parish of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids, MI provided officiated gravesite service with internment of the ashes of Betty Jane Irish Zwicker and Karl Martin Emmanuel Zwicker on May 26, 2018 at East Plains Cemetery in Pewamo, MI. In lieu of flowers, please consider volunteering or contributing to St. Mary’s Parish, Wings of Hope in Allegan, Michigan, an environmental cause, or any charity dear to your hearts.
A song bird sat on a swaying bough,
The song he sang I can hear it now;
And this was the song he sang as he swayed,
Thank God for the beautiful world he made.
- Elizabeth Adams Wells, 1901