Tribute to Betty O’Donoghue

Dec 11, 2018 | Teacher's Corner

Although Betty left Evergreen, and transferred to Sherwood House Nursing Home before she passed away, it seems appropriate to write about her and remember her, as she has been one of the best-known personalities in Evergreen. Always with a smile and a happy greeting for everyone, through good times and bad, Betty remained her own dear self.

Betty grew up in Natal and when the League of Health and Beauty (now known as The Fitness League) was brought to South Africa by two attractive British ladies, Prunella Stack and Barbara Keyes in the 1950’s, Betty became the first South African to train in London with the League. Some time later she went to Ireland to train in the Extend method – exercises suitable for retired people.

Returning to South Africa as a qualified teacher, she had the huge task of starting up classes in Johannesburg and Pretoria and soon had a class of a hundred women in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Within a year she had registered 1000 members, and soon became a leading teacher, training others to teach and the number of classes swelled opening in many areas. Betty moved to Irene and lived near the Smuts Estate. She married and had two children, a son and daughter.

When the family transferred to Cape Town, Betty soon had numerous classes going. She was now teaching the “Extend” classes that were gentler, arranged for older, less mobile people, but still using every muscle in the body, and set to music.

As a leading Extend teacher in South Africa, Betty was responsible for taking a chosen group of members to a gathering in the Royal Albert Hall in London. She had to design the choreography and train her enthusiastic team for this exciting adventure.

Betty was a hiker in her younger days and joined hiking groups that spent weekends away in the Magaliesberg and in the Free State, at Clarens and the Golden Gate. Betty said that hiking was hard work – climbing, crossing rivers, sleeping out in rough places – but she loved the companionship of lovely people that she met and above all, the sense of space and freedom that it gave her. She hiked in Ireland and Greece and these hikes were high-lights of her life.

Later, when Betty’s son emigrated to New Zealand, she spent six weeks on South Island, hiking with various groups or on her own, around the coast and crisscrossing the country. She was thrilled with the beauty of the island and it became a wonderful, memorable time.

Betty moved into Evergreen in 2004 but did not stop her busy life of running classes at Retirement homes around the Peninsula, including Avondrust, Norfolk House and, in 2010 started a class in Evergreen. We at Evergreen benefited from her weekly classes that kept us supple, active and able to balance and made us aware of our walking techniques so as not to fall, a very important factor for the elderly! We enjoyed her delightful classes set to music and her unique style.

Betty was given a wonderful party by her colleagues and friends to celebrate 50 years of teaching.  What an amazing record to achieve in a lifetime!

(Stella Hofmeyer & Pat Robinson)

  Eulogy by Bridget O’Donoghue

Grace and kindness are characteristics that Betty had in abundance.

Betty was born in Durban, the eldest of three girls to Ernest and Yvonne. My grandfather was one of eleven children so there was a large extended family. She attended Berea Road primary school where her mother taught. Betty boarded at Epworth High school in Pietermaritzburg, and was sent there because of her asthma.

It was at Epworth where she discovered her love for dance and performance. This was a very happy and enriching time in her life. The family moved to Cape Town as her father took new employment when Betty was in her late teens. She trained and worked as a Secretary in Cape Town. As a child I was always impressed at her speed typing and that intriguing short hand language. Her 1960s typewriter is currently in the Langa Pass Office Museum as a donated historic object.

The Fitness League, then known as the League of Health and Beauty was started in England. On 7 February 1951 Betty attended the first league class held in Cape Town’s City Hall by Prunella Stack, the daughter of the founder. Betty was offered a scholarship to train in London as a League teacher and lived there from 1953 – 1955, arriving in time to attend Queen Elizabeth II coronation. We have Betty’s note books from her teacher training that confirm the League’s thorough training. During her holidays she worked at the oldest hotel on Sark Island, as a ‘maid of all purposes’. She was extremely happy during this period in London, and revisited Sark Island in 2000.

On her return to South Africa, she started the League in Johannesburg. The classes were very successful with over 1000 members, and classes overflowed the halls into the adjacent rooms. Betty married my father Joe O’Donoghue here in the previous St Michael’s Church. These stained glass windows are from the previous Church. My father changed his work and the family moved back to Cape Town living in Pinelands, close to Betty’s father. Sean my brother was born in 1960 and Betty’s mother Yvonne died in 1962, the year I was born.

After a few years in Pinelands, the family moved to Lakeside. The family moved again in 1965 to Olifansfontein, south of Pretoria to accommodate my father’s work. It was a social time for the young couple and Betty acted in local theatre. During this period, Archbishop George Daniel, at the time the local parish priest, converted Betty into the Catholic faith and remained her life long counsellor and friend.

Betty took over the Pretoria League and for a period also taught trainee school teachers in Krugersdorp. She started classes for children to complement her work with adults and regularly organised large public displays. Her League highlights were many and ranged from the progress of her individual members to the League’s events at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

As Betty got older, she specialised with the League in Ireland to teach exercise for the elderly, known as Extend. She returned to Irene and established Extend classes and a training course for Extend teachers. Teaching Extend was a continuation of her lifelong caring for the aged.

Fourteen years ago, Betty moved back to Cape Town to be closer to my family, my brother having immigrated to New Zealand. She purchased a flat at Evergreen, Rondebosch that was ideal for her. She easily made new friends and she adored her own flat, with its views towards the mountainscape. She loved swimming in the pool, watching movies on Friday nights, and going to the ballet and theatre with her friends. She joined St Michaels Parish and was actively involved in the Catholic Women’s League. Betty was also welcomed by local League members and started teaching general and Extend classes.

I have often described Betty as the healthiest 80 year old imaginable, and have wonderful memories of her dancing at our wedding. She celebrated her 80th birthday with close friends and family at the Casa Labia in Muizenberg. Unfortunately Betty suffered ill health during her eighties, and was incredibly brave, always determined to regain her health and independence. She managed to teach Extend until she was 84 years old.

Betty was an inspiration to many people; she was always positive, so full of energy and remained contemporary with her views and lifestyle. She was accommodating to all and had so many good friends, many of whom she met over 50 years ago. She naturally thought of other people before herself. Waiting for hours at Groote Schuur Hospital never seemed an inconvenience as she always chatted to the people sitting next to her. She often said she did not mind her diagnosis when faced by the amount of young people in the Oncology section.

Beyond her creatively within the League, she made beautiful beaded necklaces, quilted covers, handbags, pottery, and in her later years was always knitting for charity. We are honoured to be Betty’s family. She unfailingly supported me throughout my life and taught me the love and benefits of exercise. She adored her four grandchildren, with a very special bond for the eldest and youngest, Ally and Isla with whom she could spend more time.


Betty achieved enormously in her life and has left us much to be remembered by. In honour of her life’s work within the League, a Trust will be established to support the training of League teachers. In ending, the words said to me last week by Archbishop Daniels gave great comfort: he said he never speaks of the deceased in the past tense as he believes they are more alive than we are.

(Bridget O’Donoghue – Daughter)