Published DateMEREDITH — Betty Newell believes in positive thinking. She should know — after enduring a youth that few would envy, she's enjoyed golden years that many would dream of. She lives independently in the same home she's occupied for 35 years, has a clarity of mind sharper than some people half her age, and enjoys the adoration of 29 children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
Beginning with her 75th birthday, her children began a practice of indulging Newell in extreme thrills. First it was a hot air balloon ride, since then things have gotten a little more exciting. She's gone indoor skydiving, white water rafting, parasailing and has flown upside-down in a WWII-era biplane. On May 22 she'll celebrate her 92nd birthday, and as an early surprise her children brought her to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon for the chance to drive a Porsche 997S around a racetrack.
"I had always wanted to do that, what a surprise!" she said.
Life hasn't always been sports cars and hot air balloons, though. Newell was born in Millinocket, Maine, into a family of 10 children. When she was eight years old — the same year that the stock market crash precipitated the Great Depression — her mother died of blood poisoning and, upon hearing the news, her father suffered a stroke. The double tragedy shattered the family, separating Newell from her siblings and sending her bouncing between family members and foster homes. She lived for a time in Canada, then back to Maine, then New Hampshire, back again to Maine, "I finally wound up in 1938 with a family in Gilford." Newell had found a sense of stability with her foster family and was set to graduate from Laconia High School. However, it turned out that her new family was as mobile as she had been, and she moved with her family to New York State, then to Manchester, Vermont, where she ultimately graduated from high school.
At the age of 21, Newell married her first husband, a Holderness man named Francis Baker she met while they both were working at Scott & Williams mill in Laconia. "My husband and I decided to move to Connecticut because the work was good there." They found work a United Aircraft, where Newell would work for 31 years. Her husband wasn't so fortunate, though, as he passed away in 1969. A couple of years later, she married Fred Newell, and in 1977 they decided to retire and leave Connecticut. She insisted on returning to the Lakes Region.
"He wanted to go to Florida, I said no way. If you want me to take an early retirement, we're going to move to New Hampshire." She and Fred moved to Meredith, and she's lived in the same home since. It is now filled with the sno-globes and hundreds of music boxes she loves to collect, as well as many of the priceless porcelain dolls she has made. Lately, those collectibles have been competing for space with the growing number of photographs documenting her adventures. To drive a sports car around a race track was something she had wanted to do for decades, she said.
"When the kids were small, we used to go to Springfield (Mass.) for the races. I always liked that, especially the demolition derby races." Her children must have remembered those family outings, because they recently surprised her on May 5 by reserving for her the driver's seat of a 355-horsepower, rear-engined Porsche, made available through the Exotic Driving Experience.
"What a car that was," said Newell, who said her only disappointment was that she wasn't able to match the 90 miles per hour a very surprised state trooper clocked her doing a couple of years ago on the Interstate. Instead, the company covered the car's speedometer so drivers would concentrate on the corners and crests of the speedway's 1.6 mile road course. After her laps, she was told that her max speed was 77 m.p.h.
How was the experience? "Wonderful. Just the speed, and to think that I was actually on a racetrack... Oh, I just wanted to step on it!"
Some might suggest that a woman of Newell's age should take an easier approach to life. She responds, "No way. If I ease up now, all I'll do is sit at home and rock in a chair. I just want to go, go, go. I just love driving a car."
Asked what her experience has taught her about life, Newell said, "You have to be a positive thinker, you have to believe in God, that it is Him that has given this to me. I often think that I'm having such a great adult life because I had such a terrible young life. I just love my life, my children are so good to me."