By Brad Dison
Marion had always surrounded herself with animals. “I’ve loved animals since I was in the womb,” Marion proclaimed. “It is so embedded in me.” When Marion’s parents brought her home from the hospital, she joked that if their marmalade cat named Toby had not approved of her, she would have been sent back to the hospital without a second thought. One of her earliest memories was riding in the mountains in the saddle with her father. Marion’s parents spent a lot of time in the mountains in California. There, she learned a deep respect and love for nature.
Marion’s parents often brought home pets. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, Marion’s father worked as an electrical engineer. Even with the advanced position, Marion’s family struggled financially. To make extra money, Marion’s father built radios to sell. Most people struggled to afford food, much less a radio, and sales were sporadic. Potential customers wanted the radios but had no expendable income. Marion’s father often traded the radios for other goods. Many times, Marion’s father traded a radio for a dog. Providing food for his family became increasingly difficult with each trade. “Now, the radios didn’t eat,” Marion recalled, “but the dogs did, which was not the best business thing in the world.” At one point, Marion remembered that they wound up with about twenty dogs.
Marion’s love of animals inspired her to become a U.S. Forest Ranger. Her mission was to devote her life to wildlife preservation. However, those dreams were dashed early on when she learned that women were not allowed to be forest rangers. At that time, men and women had clearly defined gender roles. Marion had no choice but to select another career path.
Following high school graduation in 1939, Marion entered a career field which was open to both men and women. Unfortunately for her, it was not in the field of wildlife preservation, her dream profession. However, her successful career afforded her the ability to help with wildlife preservation in other ways. For over fifty years, Marion worked with the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens and is still on the board of trustees. She once pointed out in an interview that “I’ve even got my own key to the Los Angeles Zoo.” Marion usually visits the zoo before it is open to the public. She has spent so much time at the zoo that many of the animals recognize her, approach her, and go for walks with her. Marion and many of the animals have bonded over the years.
On November 9, 2010, Marion got her childhood wish. The U.S. Forest Service proclaimed her an honorary forest ranger during a ceremony at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. During the ceremony, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell apologized to Marion; “I am sorry you couldn’t join us before…You would have made marvelous contributions to our agency and to the cause of conservation across the United States.” “Your passion for animals, for nature, for wildlife, perfectly suits you to our profession.” Marion responded, “Whether I’ve been a legitimate forest ranger or not, I’ve been working for the cause for the last 89 years, and I will continue to work for it as much as I can. In my heart I’ve been a forest ranger all of my life. Now I’m official. I know this is an honorary position, but it’s also one where I can use a voice to try to protect the remaining beautiful parts of this gorgeous world we live on.” Marion stressed the importance of protecting natural habitats for wildlife. “Wilderness is getting harder and harder to find these days on our beautiful planet, and we’re abusing our planet to the point of almost no return. Once you pave it over, it never comes back.”
As she hugged a Smokey Bear teddy bear and proudly wore her ranger hat and badge, she said, “I cannot thank you enough. As excited as I am today, as grateful as I am – I know two people who would be over the moon – my mom and dad.” At the conclusion of her speech, Marion told the crowd of onlookers, “I’m going to a wonderful celebration for Tina Fey this evening, and it’s a formal affair. Do you think it would be alright if I wore my hat?” The onlookers laughed and applauded.
Marion continues to work at her mission. Her professional career has enabled her to better help with wildlife preservation than if she had become a U.S. Forest Ranger all those years ago. Marion’s career began with a single spoken word in a live radio commercial. The word she had to say was “Parkay.” She was worried enough that she would make a mistake that she had the word written down in front of her during the broadcast. The broadcast was a success and Marion’s career flourished soon thereafter. She began working in the television industry in the 1940s, when television was in its infancy, and has never stopped. She has worked on several memorable television shows such as “Petticoat Junction,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Love Boat,” “Mama’s Family,” “Empty Nest,” and many more. Marion holds the Guinness World Record for the “Longest TV career by an entertainer.” In addition to her television roles, Marion has also starred in many motion pictures, but she is probably most associated with her character, Rose, on the television series “The Golden Girls.” Marion, whose continuing lifelong mission is wildlife preservation, is the middle name of Betty White.
- Guinness World Records. “Longest Tv Career by an Entertainer (Female).” Accessed December 3, 2020. guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/107740-longest-tv-career-by-an-entertainer-female.
- YouTube.com. “Betty White Interview – Part 1 of 5 Emmytvlegends.org.” Accessed December 3, 2020. youtu.be/i2ZHoxceYsU.
- USDA.gov. “Forest Service makes actress Betty White honorary ranger.” Accessed December 3, 2020. fs.usda.gov/news/releases/forest-service-makes-actress-betty-white-honorary-ranger.
- AARP.org. “Betty White: My Life at the Zoo.” Accessed December 3, 2020. aarp.org/entertainment/books/info-12-2011/betty-white-life-at-the-zoo-author-speaks.html.
- YouTube.com. “Betty White Becomes Honorary Forest Ranger.” Accessed December 3, 2020. youtu.be/65fzDIruqiU.
- The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), November 19, 1989, p.7.
- Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens. “Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association.” Accessed January 1, 2021. lazoo.org/about/glaza/.