Brian’s Column: My Bette Erwin Memorial

Tribute to a fiery leader who nurtured the cause of liberty

Bette_ErwinThis is an encore piece (originally penned January 8, 2007) as I reach the last of the columns I created in the former clunky format. By conjuring up memories of the way we were—at least here in L/libertarian Michigan in the final quarter of the 20th century—it propels me to think more strongly from the roots of experience. Also, the Libertarian Party that she helped to seed has reached, by many people’s accounts, a Day of Reckoning. It is good to reflect on the salient plusses that arose under its auspices. — bw


For a while I was afraid no one would find out about her passing; finally some solid information emerged from a scattering of emails from friends and who knew her back in the day.  “The day” being roughly 1974-1984 in Michigan libertarian politics.

During the period when Bette came to preeminence—she was the Michigan Libertarian Party candidate for US Senate in 1976 and 1982—I was into my iconoclastic-anarchist phase.

Around that time, my wife and I attended an esthetics conference in Milwaukee—does anyone remember the Equitarian Associates?—which Bette and her husband-to-be Sam Sprague, an artist, were also part of.

After that, the four of us socialized now and then in the Birmingham-Southfield area.  From my vantage point as an LP leader in the 1980s it became clear how important Dr. Erwin was to so many of the young minds in the movement… including mine!

Bette, through her extraordinary perceptions as a psychologist—she acquired star status in the SE Michigan therapy scene—had a quick, bright way of hitting life’s curve balls out of the park.

A petite blond 5′ tall, if that, she fearlessly helped people of all circumstance or race.  Her enthusiasm was contagious, her eyes sparkled and her wit embraced everyone in range. She was always thrilled to see you. Many times in that promising era I’d be giving my freedom spiel in casual conversation  when someone in my audience would query, “Do you know Dr. Bette Erwin?”


So I noodle out the details of her memorial ceremony and take a drive in the early-morning drizzle to pay my respects.  Even though her fan base had diminished during sadder times in her later years, a good-sized coterie shows up.

Family, too, from Bette’s origins in Minnesota.

The one brother in his 60s sings the Lord’s Prayer as sweetly as an operatic tenor.  A nephew sings Amazing Grace equally poignantly.  Several colleagues and people she helped over the years come forward with special sentiments.

The current LPM chairman, Scotty Boman, eloquently expresses how people touch our lives in ways we least expect.  Even though he had never met Bette, she helped shape the the ideas and the movement for which he and subsequent generations will be carrying the torch for.

I come away feeling:

  • The movement as defined largely by the ideas of Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Party itself are heroic enterprises—not so much for specifics (not everything is done the way we always like) but for erecting a platform of livable ideals.
  • I feel a strong kinship with people of this ideological mix; I’m proud to have come along when I did, to have known so many people of Bette’s caliber and focus, to have “seen the light” of reason and liberty, and to share it.
  • Sitting here listening to the testimony, I also feel an overwhelming biological connection to Bette as a person, and to her friends and family, to everyone here, and to my own extended family.

People into ideas as strongly as we are can lose track of the emotional energies that make us flesh and blood beings.   Bette’s ceremony, just as her life, rekindle in me a deep passion and caring for people as we are and as we might be.

You live on in our hearts, sweet girl.

Bette’s obit in the Detroit Free Press

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