Betty Dahlem Desbiens was returned to her Mother Earth on September 24, 2023, at the distinguished age of 103. She was alert and inquisitive until her final rest at Henry Ford Allegiance Hospice Home where she requested three bird feeders be placed outside her window and had the opportunity to go outdoors, enjoying the nature she cherished. Betty remained hopeful that her lifetime of giving would continue to make a difference for residents of Jackson County, their beloved pets, and the natural and historic environment of the area she loved.
Betty was born in Jackson, Michigan, in 1920, the year that women earned the right to vote. She always said she could not imagine her educated mother not being allowed to vote.
Betty received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and taught junior high and high school English, U.S. History, and Social Studies in Hanover Horton, Royal Oak, the Panama Canal Zone, Guam, and Hawaii. Betty earned a master’s degree at Columbia University, then returned to Jackson in 1958. She taught and served as Principal of East Jackson Memorial Elementary School. Betty earned her doctorate in Education at Wayne State University where she finished her educational career as an Assistant Professor in the Special Education Department.
Betty’s commitment to education continued with her founding donation to the John and Mary Dahlem Environmental Education Center and foot trails in 1976, named in honor of her parents, on the Jackson Community College property. She assisted again with the legal creation of the Dahlem Conservancy in 2005, making the center fully independent from the college in programming, staffing, funding, and management. Betty led the restoration of the J. Sterling Wickwire barn and funded the development of the Dahlem Community Gardens. She envisioned the Wickwire Farm as a resource for learning about the interconnection of agricultural and ecological systems. She believed Dahlem could teach families about the benefits of growing food with their own hands and the ecological importance of supporting pollinators.
Betty volunteered and was a major funder for other Jackson organizations that needed special assistance not readily available elsewhere. Her valuable endeavors included the Falling Waters Trail, Hanover Horton Historical Society, Jackson County Parks Association, Betty’s Dog Park, the Cascades Humane Society and its forerunner, downtown’s historic National Humane Alliance fountain, Grand River Environmental Action Team, and Spring Arbor’s historic Bean Schoolhouse. Betty founded the Key West Botanical Garden Society in 1988, converting a neglected city-run operation into a thriving tropical garden and forest with a Board of Directors and educational staff. The Desbiens Pond located there is the farthest south fresh-water pond in the United States.
Betty was honored with a 2001 Susan B. Anthony award, in recognition of her commitment to equal opportunities and participation for women in our community. In 2023 Betty received a proclamation from the City of Jackson, extending the community’s deepest gratitude for her unyielding commitment to Jackson, her vision for improving the quality of life for so many, and her ability to effect over a century of positive change in and around Jackson. Betty was also a recipient of a special tribute from the State of Michigan, commending her years of faithful work and support that helped make Jackson a robust and thriving area of our beloved state and her impressive accomplishments and dedication to enriching her part of the world. Most recently, Betty has been recognized by the Jackson County Michigan Historical Society with their Lifetime Achievement Award, acknowledging Betty not only as a great citizen scientist, but also as one of Jackson’s greatest citizen historians and community leaders.
The legacy of Betty’s life and work exemplifies how we all can make a positive impact on our community.