Betty A Nelson

July 13, 1925 ~ May 11, 2022 (age 96)


Betty A. Nelson, age 96, of Napa, arrived in this world at Napa General Hospital on July 13, 1925, the last child of Mary Edna (Richie) Gay, who was born in St. Helena in 1889, and William Bishop Gay, who was born in Peckham, England, in 1887.  After devoting herself for more than nine decades to family and friends, Betty passed away quietly in the early evening of May 11, 2022, with her children lovingly by her bedside.  A wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, Betty was the widow of Arnold L. Nelson, who predeceased her in 2014.  She never stopped loving Arnold and never missed a day thinking about him and the good times they shared during their nearly 67-year marriage.


Betty spent her grammar school days being taught by the very strict Dominican convent nuns at St. John the Baptist Catholic School, in Napa.  While attending, she was required to iron her own convent uniforms, which consisted of skirts and “white linen blouses that were practically impossible to iron!”  She also recalled playing on her home-made stilts, falling “plenty of times, but never into my mother’s cactus garden like my sister!”  She also reminisced about one of her girlfriends who had doll furniture and “we played with our dolls and a little wooden doll house with a green-painted roof, windows, and a working door that my father had made.”


After Betty graduated from the eight grade, she went on to attend Napa High School, where she played the clarinet.  She stated several years ago while dictating her oral history, “World War II had started in 1941, and they needed more switchboard operators; so, my sister told me to apply.”  “Even though I was still in high school, I was able to get a permit from school to go to classes half a day and work half a day – I loved that job!”  When Betty graduated high school in 1943, she went to work as a full-time PBX telephone operator and was sent to Calistoga, St. Helena, San Rafael, and even Mill Valley to fill in for other operators.  As did many young Napa women during the war, “I used to go out with my girlfriends to all of the dances at the Dream Bowl in Napa, and they sure were a lot of fun!”


Betty met her husband, Arnold, while she was still a telephone operator.  She recalled, “He had just come home from serving in the Navy during World War II as a gunner’s mate on a crash boat in the South Pacific.  We met through his father at the Napa County Fair in 1946, where I was one of the princesses that year.  We had so much fun going skiing, dancing, partying, swimming, and picnicking!  After he was accepted into the apprentice machinist program at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, we got engaged.  I’d saved enough money as a telephone operator to buy a 1939 Chevrolet Business Coupe, and he always said he married me for my car!”  Betty and Arnold married on August 9, 1947, at St. John’s Catholic Church, where her mother and grandmother also attended.  “He wore a brown suit, and I wore a teal blue suit and carried a Catholic Missal with a big bouquet of stephanotis on top.”


It wasn't long before Betty and Arnold started their family.  Within three months of their marriage, Betty was pregnant.  As she said, “What did I know?  I was a Catholic girl!  Getting pregnant so soon was a big shock!”  Their daughter, Susan, was born in 1948, at Parks Victory Hospital, in Napa.  Betty kept working at the telephone company while her mother cared for Susan until Arnold came home from Mare Island.  They both worked hard, saved their money, and bought their first house on Menlo Avenue, in Napa.  Betty kept working until she became pregnant with their first son, William (“Bill”), who was born in 1953, also at Parks Victory Hospital.  After that, Betty became a traditional homemaker for her family.


In 1955, the whole family moved to Long Beach after Arnold accepted a machinist position at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.  After renting for six months, they bought their dream home, and Betty continued as a homemaker, cooking carefully planned, four-course dinner meals for her family each and every day, baking yummy treats, packing school lunches, and taking cake decorating classes so that she could make incredible birthday cakes for her children.  She made everything from scratch from fresh ingredients because she cared about her family’s health, and she also made and canned her own jams and jellies.  She loved gardening and planted lovely flower beds.  On Saturdays, she volunteered to help clean the local Saint Maria Goretti Catholic church the family attended.  Betty, already an excellent seamstress, took tailoring classes and made many of Susan’s school and play clothes, not to mention dozens of doll dresses!  She also became an integral member of her tightly-knit neighborhood, where the mothers became friends and met several times each week over coffee to discuss their children’s progress, exchange clothes their children had outgrown, exchange recipes, and update the set of neighborhood rules that each child was expected to follow.  One of those rules was that any parent on the block could discipline any child to follow the block rules.  Betty lovingly created what the family often refers to as a “Leave It to Beaver” home.


Life went on like clockwork, and then her “caboose” son, Eric, was born in 1962, at Long Beach Memorial Hospital, bringing Betty and Arnold’s total number of children to three.  At this time, Bill was still in Helen Keller Elementary School, and Susan was entering Robert A. Millikan High School.  Betty was juggling her new baby, Bill’s Cub Scout activities, and Susan’s music activities, but she continued to serve four-course dinner meals and keep up with all of her other activities.  Eventually, she taxied all three of her children to and from their music events.  She also always had an open door for any younger women she’d met to sit at her kitchen table and talk; from this, she developed many lifetime friendships.  For recreation, she and Arnold took up square dancing, which they both loved!  And since Arnold was a world-class model airplane builder and flier in his spare time, Betty and Arnold toured Europe twice when Arnold was selected as a member of the United States modeling team, and he won the World Championships held in 1968 and 1970, in Finland and Belgium.  The whole family enjoyed yearly trips to their cabin in Somes Bar, where Betty continued to manage all the meals, treats, and looked after her children as they swam in the swimming hole along the river.  After Arnold retired from the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in 1981, Betty and he took off on an epic RV trip, criss-crossing the United States and Canada for many years before settling back into a new home in Napa in 1989, where they were active members of the Roving Rooster RV Club.


Betty is survived by her three children, daughter Susan of Newport, Oregon; son William (Cindy) of Torrance, and son Eric of Visalia; four grandchildren, Megan, Craig, Lindsay, and Monica; and three great grandchildren, Alexander, Natalia, and Denver.  She fiercely loved and was extremely proud of each one of them, and she told them so whenever the opportunity arose.  Betty was predeceased by her sister, Edna Mary Gay (1916-1916); brother, William Myron (“Bill”) Gay (1920-1951); sister, Helen Edith Gay Fisk Schwarze (1922-1992); father, William Bishop (“Will”) Gay (1887-1957); mother, Mary Edna (Richie) Gay (1889-1977); maternal grandfather, Myron Thomas Richie (1865-1946); maternal grandmother, Helena Agnes (Manion) Richie (1861-1945); paternal grandfather, John William Bishop Manning Gay (1859-1929); and paternal grandmother, Eliza Sarah (Tomkins) Gay  (1860-1907).


Betty wanted no service.  In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in her memory to Napa Valley Hospice.  Words of sympathy may be sent to the family online at or by mail.

Susan A. Nelson, Esq.
Deputy Attorney General (Ret.)

To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Betty A Nelson, please visit our floral store.

Memorial Tree
A Memorial Tree was planted for Betty

We are deeply sorry for your loss - the staff at Tulocay Cemetery Funeral Home & Crematory

Join in honoring their life - plant a memorial tree


You can still show your support by sending flowers directly to the family, or by planting a memorial tree in the memory of Betty A Nelson
© 2022 Tulocay Cemetery Funeral Home & Crematory. All Rights Reserved. Funeral Home website by CFS & TA | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Accessibility