Elizabeth “Betty” Sonneborn, an artist and humanitarian, passes away at 100
Elizabeth “Betty” Sonneborn passed away on Wednesday morning. She was a longstanding resident of Albany, a humanitarian, an artist, and a Curtiss-Wright Cadette at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute during World War II. Her narrative was archived in the Library of Congress in 2014. She was 100.
Sonneborn had a fall about a month and a half prior, according to her daughter Betsy Hamel, and she wasn’t fully recovered.
Betsy remarked, “She was an excellent mother.” And she was an incredible, incredible woman.
Thomas, Betsy’s older brother, and Betsy were both born with profound hearing loss. Because Albany at the time didn’t have a program for the hearing challenged, Sonneborn took on the role of their therapist and worked with the siblings every day, according to Betsy.
However, Sonneborn and her husband Richard worked hard to alter that, and together they contributed to the creation of a program at Albany Medical Center for young people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
She had four kids and no paid employment, Betsy remarked. She was, however, busier than I could have ever imagined.
In addition to working with the Red Cross and United Way, starting a community garden in the city’s South End, creating innovative programs for drug addicts in rehabilitation, serving on the board of the Albany Institute of History and Art, and supporting the Albany Academy for Girls, Sonneborn volunteered extensively throughout her home city of Albany, according to her daughter.
James Sonneborn, the eldest son of Sonneborn, remarked, “She worked to make the world a better place.”
In 1940, Sonneborn received his diploma from the academy and enrolled at Wellesley College to study art history. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Sonneborn recalled in a 2006 interview at Bethlehem Central High School, she insisted on changing her major to physics in order to aid in the war effort. Despite being halfway through her art degree, she wouldn’t accept no, and the dean eventually gave in.
When the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, one of the leading producers of aircraft during the war, struggled to maintain production due to the enlistment of its male employees, the business recommended an unorthodox solution for the time: educate aeronautical engineering to female math and science students.
One of the ladies chosen to become a Curtiss-Wright Cadette was Sonneborn. She completed the two-and-a-half years of engineering coursework at RPI in just nine months before being hired as a draughtsman at a plant in Caldwell, New Jersey.
Sonneborn completed her art degree at Wellesley after the war was over and men could once again go to work. She then returned to Albany and started volunteering at the Albany Institute of History and Art. Eventually, she joined the board of the institution and became one of the longest-serving trustees.
In a statement, Michael Tucker, the chair of the AIHA board at the time, said of Betty, “She was a most elegant woman who was always ahead of her time.” She was the Albany Institute’s most devoted board member and patron.
Phoebe Powell Bender, a former AIHA board president who was chosen as the body’s first female president in 1986, praised Sonneborn for her commitment to the organization as well as her enthusiasm for a woman leading the board.
She was really imaginative and had lots of nice ideas, Bender added. She “worked very effectively with people, although she argued when required.”
The institute’s most popular auction items at fundraisers were Sonneborn’s pen and ink sketches of houses, which always brought in more money than Sonneborn anticipated, according to Betsy.
Betsy remarked, “She was an artist at heart.
Richard, Sonneborn’s late husband, passed away in 2013 from natural causes. On a trip to the Adirondacks, the two came together. Richard made a proposal six days following their meeting. Before settling in Albany, Sonneborn’s hometown, the two spent four years living in Dallas.
When Richard passed away in 2013, their oldest son, James, recalled that the two shared a strong affinity and that his mother was prepared to depart, but not before giving her children some wise counsel.
Don’t cry when they leave because I’ve had a great life, she remarked, James recalled. “And let’s face it, she has,” I said. James, Thomas, and Dirk Sonneborn’s sons and Betsy Sonneborn’s daughter survive her. Gates B. Aufsesser and Bessie deBeer Aufsesser, who both passed away, were her parents.
Sonneborn gave her corpse to Albany Medical Center, whose founding chairman was her husband. On Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Fort Orange Club on Washington Ave., memorial ceremonies will begin at 11 a.m. The family is asking for donations to the Albany Institute of History and Art in lieu of flowers.