Photo of Elizabeth (Betty) Williams
Elizabeth (Betty) Williams

Obituary of Elizabeth (Betty) Williams

December 18, 2022

Betty Williams performance

Photograph courtesy of Dances for a Variable Population

Elizabeth (Betty) Williams (85) died December 18, 2022, at her home in New York City. Born to Barbara (Strong) and John Dwight Leggett, Jr., Betty described herself as a real New Yorker. Born in Manhattan, she moved to Connecticut for much of her childhood. She then spent time in San Francisco and Los Angeles with a swift return to her beloved New York where she lived nearly all of her adult life.

Curious, engaged and passionate, Betty was a lifelong student, artist, and social justice activist. Betty’s political awakening and commitment to alleviate suffering began, as so much did for Betty, in conversation and in relationship with people dear to her. Her insatiable intellect and compassionate heart translated news of global events to deep learning and commitment. She developed a love of Japanese and Hattian literature, art and theater -- and so many others --  that reflected the cultural diversity that constitutes the world she so revered. Through her training at Parsons School of Design and her ongoing engagement with performance and dance she became thoroughly connected to the arts throughout the city.

Those connections not only brought Betty close to the arts in her own dance practice and attendance at events, but also to the suffering of others in the arts community in the early days of the HIV/AIDS health and political crisis in New York. Her relationships with people living with AIDS were a turning point in Betty’s life, focusing her energies to advance the lives of others. As a member of the 15th Street Quaker Meeting Betty sought to bring comfort and stability to people living without homes. From providing direct care to individuals and delivering blankets to homeless persons, Betty’s regard for others ultimately led to her leadership in the formation of a shelter on East 25th Street specifically for people living with AIDS. Travelling to Guantanamo, where Haitian refugees were imprisoned, Betty’s political acumen and French language capability, paired with her bravery, ensured care for many Haitian people.

She was a powerful presence as she bore witness at countless demonstrations in support of healthcare, housing, and against military action.

Daily life for Betty focused on community work, including among many groups, New York Quaker Meeting (NYQM), ACT UP, Community Board 2 (Soho and Greenwich Village), Housing Works, and the Haitian Centers Council. Later in life, Betty became a founding member of Dances for a Variable Population (DVP), and rehearsed, performed and brought dance to many communal spaces across the city and at Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshires.

Betty’s small stature belied her expansive capacity for love – a petit yet a grand person. She spread loving wings to embrace an expanse of family and friends throughout her life. She is survived by her loving brother (John D. Leggett, III) and sister (Nancy Pitarys), nieces and nephews, grand nieces and nephews, and the boys whose childhoods and adult lives were shaped by her guardianship and devoted nurturance.

Betty’s extended family and friends are eternally grateful to the women who cared tenderly for Betty in her later years as Parkinson’s stole her autonomy. They are unsurpassed in their devotion and compassion.

In lieu of flowers donations may be sent in honor of Betty to CitiLeaf Housing, Housing Works, Dances for a Variable Population, 15th Street Quaker Meeting or other organization that embodies Betty’s life and work.



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