Betty White had every reason to call it a night 30 years ago when she checked into the Governor’s Suite at the Archer House Hotel in Northfield, Minnesota.
The TV star was then 70 and finishing her seventh and final season on “The Golden Girls,” a comedy in which she played the adorably naive widow Rose Nylund of the fictional rural town of St. Olaf, Minn.
White’s May 1992 trip from Hollywood to the real St. Olaf College in Northfield began with a takeoff from Los Angeles airport amid lingering smoke from the riots sparked when four cops were cleared of the beating by Rodney King. White’s busy schedule for her two-day visit to Minnesota included a career talk with theater students, the St. Olaf Choir’s spring concert, a stop at a women’s softball game, a chapel service and the Northfield Historical Society exhibit on another great celebrity. who had previously visited Northfield – Jesse James and his gang of burglars in 1876.
“Look at his eyes,” she said looking at a picture of James. “Is it amazing [Henry] Fonda played it?”
No one would have been surprised, then, if an exhausted white man had simply said good night after arriving and talking on campus. But at 10 p.m. Archer House owner Dallas Haas called his wife, Sandra, to ask her to bring their dog Stanley to the hotel. White, a well-known dog lover and animal rights activist, wanted to meet their 13-year-old Shih Tzu.
“She had such boundless energy and we sat on the hotel lobby floor for an hour, laughing, playing with Stanley and being such a delightful fellowship,” said Sandra Haas, 78, who now lives in Faribault .
Haas had been a huge White fan since the Emmy Award-winning 1970s stint as Minneapolis TV housewife Sue Ann Nivens on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” White’s role as Golden Girl only deepened Haas’ admiration; in fact, Haas’ late mother, June Lee, was around the same age as White and often wore the same outfits as White’s TV character.
Haas, who ran a gift shop near the Archer home, stocked White’s suite with stuffed animals before he arrived. But she prepared for disappointment.
“I was nervous to meet someone as famous as Betty White, whose life was so full of rich people in Hollywood,” Haas recently recalled after White died on December 31 at age 99, just two weeks of what would have been his 100th birthday on Monday.
“But she was everything I hoped for – and more,” Haas said. “She had no pretense and was so down to earth, sincere and humble. It was one of those times when someone comes into your life and you have a special time.”
White’s connection to St. Olaf began in the mid-1980s, when a Hollywood producer called Dan Jorgensen out of the blue into his college office, where he worked in public relations.
The TV guy wanted to tell the college they were going to cast White as a character from St. Olaf, Minnesota. Jorgensen checked with the college president, who agreed it couldn’t hurt. White herself wasn’t so sure.
“I was a little worried because I was afraid they wouldn’t appreciate the fact that Rose wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier,” White wrote in a 2008 letter to Susan Hvistendahl, a Northfield history writer who chronicled White’s visit in the Entertainment Guide. (tinyurl.com/BettyWhitevisit). Hvistendahl wrote to White for a photo to post with his story and was thrilled when the actor quickly responded with an autographed photo and a sweet handwritten letter.
Jorgensen kept in touch with the staff of “The Golden Girls”, arranging a reunion in 1989 when the college choir traveled to Los Angeles and attended the taping of a show. Before the cameras rolled, White and co-star Rue McClanahan, who played Southern belle Blanche, greeted their Minnesota visitors with a rendition of “Um Yah Yah!” – Saint Olaf’s battle song.
That meeting in Los Angeles led to White’s 1992 visit to the St. Olaf campus and stay at the Archer House, an 1877 landmark that was destroyed in a fire in 2020 and is being razed this week. .
Jorgensen picked up White and her assistant from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where “everyone was oohing and aahing,” he said.
On the drive through Dakota County from the airport to Northfield, Jorgensen said White was worried about a stray dog on a rural stretch of Cedar Avenue. She asked him to stop so she could chase the dog out of the way, exclaiming how much better she felt after saving the pooch.
“I looked in my rear view mirror and the dog was quickly back in the middle of the road,” recalls Jorgensen, now retired in Colorado. “I never said a word.”
Curt Brown’s Tales of Minnesota History appear every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected] His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war, and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.