Eagan advocate inspires many

Bassett spent much of her life advocating for disabled children, environment, DFL

Betty Bassett

Longtime Eagan resident Elizabeth (Betty) Bassett was never afraid to champion the causes she believed in.

Whether it was advocating for children with disabilities or protecting the environment, Bassett, who died on Oct. 19 at age 90, never backed down no matter how hard the fight.

“She was a compassionate person,” Bassett’s granddaughter, Kelsey Thomsen, said. “She was an inspiration.”

Bassett was known in Eagan for her political activism as a supporter of the local DFL party and her efforts to protect area wildlife.

About 20 years ago, Bassett became a fixture at City Hall as she worked to prevent a planned waste water treatment plant from infringing upon local wildlife areas. Bassett was most concerned about a fen that abutted her five-acre property and the proposed plant.

Eventually, a compromise was made between Bassett and the city that allowed the construction of the plant while protecting the fen.

Politics were another love of Betty’s and she had been active in campaigning for area Democratic candidates since moving to Eagan in the mid-1960s.

“She was a very strong DFLer” said Rep. Sandra Masin. “She was active until the end.”

Masin described Bassett as someone who was passionate about the issues that meant most to her, but who also knew how to pick her battles.

“Betty did a lot for the city, especially the fen,” Masin said. “It was harder to protect the environment back then.”
Ambitious advocate

The St. Paul native was born in 1923 and was the oldest of two girls.

Bassett was a bright and inquisitive child who attended a gifted program and graduated high school one year early.

“As a little girl, she wanted to know everything about everything,” Thomsen said.

At age 17 she began her freshman year at the University of Minnesota and planned to break the glass ceiling as a lawyer like her father, L. Eugene Matteson. That dream was put on hold in 1941 when she left school to marry Wayne Bassett.

Shortly thereafter, Wayne went overseas to serve in World War II, while Betty moved to California to build fighter planes.

Upon Wayne’s return, the couple had their first child, Judith, in 1944 and lived with Betty’s parents in St. Paul while Wayne completed his bachelor’s degree. The couple later to moved to the U of M campus while he competed his master’s in library science.

Betty Bassett (right) and her husband, Wayne, had five living children: Wayne Jr., (left top) Judy, Gene, Connie (left bottom) and Roxanne. Connie, who had cerebral palsy, inspired the couple to advocate for special education.

By the 1950s, the couple moved to Worthington where they had their fourth child, Constance, who they called Connie.

Connie inspired Betty and her husband to advocate for children with disabilities. Constance was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after her umbilical cord cut off oxygen during her birth.

When Connie turned 5 years old, the couple attempted to enroll her in kindergarten but were turned away due to her disability.

That year, Betty taught Connie at home while Wayne ran for the Minnesota House in the 11th District and won. The DFLer served one term in the predominately Republican district. He was defeated in 1956. He ran again in 1959 and served until 1962. Wayne also served in District 19 from 1963-64.

During his time in office, Wayne served on the Commission on Handicap Children and was instrumental in passing legislation, which was signed by Gov. Elmer Anderson, that required Minnesota school districts to educate children with disabilities. In doing so, he pointed out that the state Constitution says “The State of Minnesota will educate all of its children.”

Thanks to the new legislation, Connie was able to attend elementary school, as well as millions of other disabled children after her.

In addition to creating legislation, Wayne and Betty established the Crippled Children’s School, now known as Lakeview Elementary School, in Robbinsdale, which provides special education programs and adaptive services to children with disabilities. Betty was also a member of the Huestad Board, an organization that provided grants and advocated for special education.

Although friends and relatives urged Betty to place Connie in an institution, Betty kept her home until she was 21 years old. By that time, Connie was too grown for Betty to bathe, clothe and lift her alone. Constance was moved to a group home for disabled adults where she lives today.

On her own

By the late 1950s,  Wayne suffered a heart attack, which pushed Betty to return to college and become a certified English and art teacher. She was soon hired as an English and art teacher in Minneapolis’ inner city where she worked for 25 years.

“She was feisty and never backed down,” Thomsen said. “She worked to inspire a diversity of students.” Although she frequently found herself in dangerous situations while teaching in Minneapolis, she never allowed herself to be intimidated.

Betty cared deeply about her students and even took in one as a foster child. This experience inspired her to continue to serve as a foster parent for 15 years.

Though Betty and Wayne made many major achievements together, they divorced in 1962, a few years after their sixth child, a 19-month-old boy, died in a drowning accident.

Shortly after the split, Betty moved with her five children to Eagan after living a short time in Minneapolis. When Betty relocated to the suburbs, she found it difficult to get around without a drivers license. At age 40, she decided to learn to drive and obtain her first license.

Betty had a passion for animals and the environment since childhood. While living in Eagan, she fostered rescue animals, particularly dogs and horses.

Betty was a passionate writer and artist. She was a member of the South Side Writers and a member of a local wood carving group.

“She was an incredibly talented woman,” Bassett’s daughter, Judy Hansing said.

Betty loved to garden and maintained a large vegetable garden and fruit bushes on her five acre property in Eagan.

“My mother loved anything that grew,” Hansing said.

Each fall she would can and freeze items from her garden and share the goods with family and friends.

Hansing recalls that Betty would put mint or cinnamon candies in various canned fruits to give them unique flavors.

Though she loved her rural property, Betty sold her five-acre land a few years ago to move to a low-maintenance property in town where she lived until her death.

“She touched so many lives,” Hansing said. “She will be a role model that is hard to live up to.”