Photo: Richard Betts in 1985.
There wasn’t a Belmont street, landmark or fact that Richard Betts seemingly did not intimately know. Betts could tell you how each of the town’s 365 roads received its name, point out the beauty of a particular house on your block and knew – down to the most minute detail – the history of all things Belmont.
Richard Boulton “Dick” Betts, a lifelong resident who was the town’s engineer, an author and skilled amateur historian who shared his knowledge of local events for present and future Belmontians, died Saturday, Jan. 30.
Betts was 88 years old. A long time resident of Woods Road, he lived at Belmont Manor when he died.
“A chapter in Belmont’s history is closed with Dick’s passing,” said Anne Marie Mahoney, who knew Betts as a resident and a member of the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee.
“He was one of a kind and a true Belmont legend. I think everyone who knew him would agree that he was indeed ‘Mr. Belmont.’ He knew everything about everything that is Belmont,” said former Selectman Steve Rosales.
Born to English immigrants Charles and Isabelle (Richards) of 165 Slade St. on Aug. 17, 1927, Betts recalled how his father, Charles, a mason contractor who was a Selectman (1940-52) and water commissioner, “instilled in me at an early age a love for Belmont, its people, and its history.”
A graduate of the Belmont High School Class of 1945 and served in the US Navy from 1945 to 1946, Betts graduated with honors with a BBA in Engineering and Management from Northeastern University.
Betts began working for the town in 1943 in the Light Department then was hired as an engineer in Belmont in 1946, working his way to becoming the town’s engineer in 1973. He retired on Feb. 20, 1987 after 43 years of service to Belmont.
“As Town Engineer, he was an invaluable resource and wonderful department head. He brought in good people under him and was a great teacher for all those Northeastern co-op students who worked under him, several of whom stayed in Belmont for their careers,” said Mahoney.
After retiring, Betts would become a Town Meeting member and was a member of the Planning Board during the lengthy and contentious McLean Hospital land deal, during which he displayed a coolness despite attacks to his person and integrity.
“Dick was always a total gentleman,” said Town Clerk Ellen Cushman.
“But it was as the de facto and eventually official Town Historian that Dick shined,” said Rosales. “He knew everything about our town, its heritage, its citizenry, streets, its lineage and its many ‘characters’ over the years,” he said.
Betts joined the Belmont Historical Society in 1965 and became president four years later. He was also one of original seven members of the Historical Commission and its first chair in 1968. In 1984, as part of Belmont’s 125th-anniversary celebration, the Selectmen named Betts the official town historian.
In 2011, Betts was honored with the Historical Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award for contributing more than four decades worth of volunteer work.
It was his curiosity about the town and love of history that led Betts to write his first book, “The Streets of Belmont and How They Were Named,” in 1974.
In researching “Streets,” Betts read every town report from the town’s incorporation in 1859 to 1972 – he had all but four years in his personal library – checked old Watertown and Cambridge reports, scoured century-old newspapers, viewed 70 years of entries in the Board of Survey record and even walked through Belmont, Watertown, and Arlington cemeteries reading gravestone inscriptions.
When asked why he went to such lengths to reveal the name of a small side street or out-of-the-way road, Betts, the true historian, said “it is a certain honor to be remembered by having a Belmont street named for you, and in the hope that someone, someday might be interested in how his particular street derived its name, I began this history so that future generations would have a place to obtain that information.”
Two years ago this month, an updated “Streets” book was published by the Historical Society.
His second book, 1984’s “Footsteps Through Belmont,” Betts compiled the articles he wrote on Belmont’s landmarks published in the Society’s quarterly newsletter into a walking tour of the town.
Betts was also the lead writer of the popular “Then & Now” and “Images” books of photos published by Arcadia.
But it was his even temperament and willingness to engage with people that fellow residents remember Betts.
“Dick was a good person who conducted himself with integrity, with a smile and always as a professional and gentleman. A person like Dick will not pass this way again. We are all better people for having known him over these many years. I know I am,” said Rosales.
“He was a kind man who was a joy to talk to about almost anything,” said Mahoney.
Betts was the husband of the late Barbara (Campbell) Betts and is survived by his daughter Linda Hutchinson and her husband Thomas and his son Robert B. Betts and his wife Susan and his grandchildren Nicholas and Matthew Betts. He was a brother of Edmund Betts and his wife Ruth of Florida and the late Charles, Jean, Barbara. He is survived by his longtime friend and proofreader, Audrey Martin.
Visiting hours will be held at Brown & Hickey Funeral Home, 36 Trapelo Road on Thursday, Feb. 4 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
A funeral service will be held at All Saints Episcopal Church on Friday, Feb. 5 at 10 a.m. Burial will be in Belmont Cemetery.
Donations may be made, in his memory, to the All Saints Church, 17 Clark St., Belmont, MA 02478 or Compassionate Care Hospice, 800 West Cummings Park, #3400, Woburn, MA. 01801.