Community, Latest News, News, WVU News

Loved ones pay their respects to the late Betty Puskar

Betty Jane got an earful when they got back to the car, but it was worth it.

“Pinched that guy right on the butt,” Wayne Howard, said, laughing.

“Goosed him good.”
The “Betty Jane,” to whom he’s referring is his big sister, Betty Puskar, the Morgantown benefactor and public health advocate who died last weekend.

Thirty-five years ago, her doctors handed her a medical death sentence.

Three years tops, they said. If she was lucky.

They said that last part without irony. She had advanced breast cancer.

And West Virginia at the time didn’t have any standalone clinics for treatment of that dread disease.

Her then-husband Milan “Mike” Puskar, who was busily transforming his Morgantown-based Mylan Pharmaceuticals firm into a global company, didn’t waste any time.

He put his wife on an airplane to Texas.

Never mind her diagnosis. The aggressive, experimental treatments enlisted by the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center of Houston almost did her in.

When she got too sick to fly, her husband chartered a plane to deliver the chemotherapy drugs into Hart Field.

Betty Jane was wrung-out, but the cancer was knocked into remission.

That’s when she realized she was quite lucky to be, well, so unlucky.

With her resources, she could afford to go after her illness like a safety blitz on third and long at Milan Puskar Stadium.
And how many other women out there, stricken with cancer, could say that?

‘If you don’t help, shame on you’
So, she went to work, even as she was recovering.

Betty Jane began lobbying for the creation of a cancer center in Morgantown, for West Virginians and everyone else in the region.

The Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center in Evansdale was born, housing the Betty Puskar Breast Care Center within its walls.

All this in five years, after doctors told her she only had three.

His big sister, Wayne Howard said, got that drive from their parents.

Garnett and Gladys Howard raised their eight kids in a house with no running water in rural Allegheny County, Va.

Two life-lessons, in particular, really took, he said.

If you wanted something, their parents said, you’d better be ready to go out and work for it, since there are no handouts in life.

But there was also a compassion caveat.
You’d also better be ready, the Howard husband and wife emphasized, to help someone less fortunate than you — since there’s always going to be someone less fortunate than you.

“If you have the resources to help and you don’t,” Betty Puskar was often quoted as saying, “then shame on you.”
Puskar was 80 when her health finally gave out. The decline, not related to COVID-19, began late last year.

Her services are at noon today at WVU’s Erickson Alumni Center. Thursday’s memorial at Erickson was for the public.

Everyone from business executives and judges, to the person who waited on her at the restaurant and was touched by her friendliness, paid their respects.

Thursday was also about her brothers and sisters.
They live as far away as Alaska, and as close to 20 minutes from the Howard home place in Virginia.

Berkley Howard, who drove down from Cleveland, couldn’t stop smiling, as he recalled Betty Jane.

Betts — and the butt
“Let me tell you about Betts,” he said, using his nickname for his big sister.

“The person you knew in Morgantown is same person we knew growing up,” he said.
“She never changed.”
When her brothers started dating girls who liked to go out dancing, Betty Jane showed them the steps.

The living room didn’t have a television set, but there was a well-used record player, with jumping 45s and LPs of every stripe.

“Hey, I can jitterbug and do the Charleston,” Wayne Howard said.

“I can even waltz, if you want me to. Betty Jane taught us.”
She also taught her siblings about bravery, he said.

“I’d call her, and I knew she was feeling rough,” he said.

“I’d say, ‘Betty Jane, how are you doing?’ She’d always say, ‘I’m wonderful. Don’t worry about me.’ ”
For a little while, Gladys Howard, two of her sons recalled, didn’t think her daughter was all that wonderful, no sir.
That’s because she had to get over that aforementioned butt-pinching prank engineered by Betty Jane.

It happened when they were walking out of a store, Berkley said.

The man on the receiving end reacted with a start, and when he jerked around, he was eye-to-eye … with Gladys Howard.

A Gladys Howard, it could be said, who was quite mortified.

Betty Jane, her brother said, could have taken home an Academy Award for her wide eyes and feigned shock.

“She said, ‘Mom, what you doing? You don’t know this man.’ ”

TWEET @DominionPostWV