GLOVERSVILLE — Betty Cuckoo has led a full life, focused on helping others. She’s fostered more than 70 children, knits blankets and mittens for family and neighbors, and on Thursday she will celebrate her 100th birthday.
Born Marion “Betty” Palmer on March 2, 1923, she was one of six children in her family growing up in Amsterdam.
“I’ve always taken care of kids,” Cuckoo said. “I started when I was taking care of my brother — he’s 12 years younger than me, and then I took care of my cousin. Then a lady, Mrs. Townsend, had a baby, just a newborn and she had another girl at home, so I went to her in-laws house to take care of the new baby when her other little one had scarlet fever.”
Cuckoo graduated from Amsterdam High School in 1941. When she finished, she had wanted to become a children’s nurse.
“But I never got there, because I went to work in laundry, pressing shirts,” she said. “When that plant went out of business, I went to work at Mohawk Laundry.”
Betty met her husband, Arden, when she was a teenager. The couple married when she was 20 in 1943, after Arden got out of the military.
Throughout Cuckoo’s life, an organization that remains special to her is The Fresh Air Fund, a not-for-profit which brings children from underserved communities in New York City to upstate New York for time during the summer. She and her husband first got involved in 1956. In 1972, she was named co-chair.
In her role, she found homes where the children would stay, and had some children stay in her home as well.
“I was in charge of the Fresh Air Fund for years,” she said. “I used to go to New York to pick up the kids. I had two children who stayed with me who I still correspond with.”
Betty and Arden had four children of their own; Kenny, Thomas, Peggy and Janice. Her youngest was born when she was working at Esquire Novelty, a toy company known for making toy guns. During that time, child care and her job came into direct conflict.
“It was kind of hard trying to find a babysitter to take care of [Janice],” Cuckoo said. “When I had the Fresh Air kids coming up, I had two weeks off in the summer. When it was time for them to go back, I needed a couple more days off from work. When I called, they said if I took the days off I wouldn’t have a job, so I said ‘Good, I didn’t want one anyway.’”
Cuckoo said she would rather take care of children. After losing her job at the toy company, she called around to different counties to get into fostering children. She got in touch with the head of social services in Fulton County.
“They came over and interviewed me, and I got three foster kids, because I wanted to keep families together,” Cuckoo said. “So, that’s what I did.”
The Cuckoos fostered 73 children in total, from older teenagers to newborns coming from the hospital. Cuckoo remembered a request made by one child that led to an unusual housemate, and companion for one of her grandchildren.
“One of my foster kids wanted a pet, something that was different,” Cuckoo said. “So, we heard about some raccoons that were found in an attic in Schenectady, and we went down and got one. We named him Rascal. Tom’s son was a baby then, and Rascal would sit up on his high chair and they’d eat together.”
The Cuckoos adopted one of their foster children, a young boy named Matthew.
“I got [Matthew] when he was a baby,” Cuckoo said. “They couldn’t find a home that would take him, and he had bonded with me. And I said to Arden, ‘Do we want to adopt him?’ and he said, ‘Yes, we do.’ I was 65 when we adopted Matthew.”
Arden died only three years later but Cuckoo has nearly 50 years of memories of their marriage to go along with their four children, 11 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren. She remembers all of their names and birthdays, she said.
“My husband died in 1991, I’ve been a widow a long time,” she said. “We had a lot of good times together. We built our own house on Galway Lake.”
Cuckoo currently lives at Petoff Gardens, an independent living facility in Gloversville. She said that, while most of the residents moved in when they were in their early to mid-60s, she moved to her home there when she was 85.
Cuckoo still leads a busy life. She likes to paint and has more than a dozen of her works of art hanging in the hall at Petoff Gardens. She enjoys knitting, and spending time with her family, too. She also recently published a book of stories about her life told from her handwritten notes. The book, “They Call Me Betty,” is available for purchase on Amazon.
Cuckoo’s secret to a long healthy life?
“Just keep moving,” she said.
Cuckoo will celebrate her milestone birthday this week at her home. For her 100th birthday, Cuckoo is asking for anyone who would like to give her a gift to send a donation to the kid’s scholarship fund at Sacandaga Bible Camp.