Santa Fe Living Treasures – Elder Stories


Betty Berchtold


Honored June, 1995

Betty Berchtold

In her long and wonderfully productive life, Betty Berchtold was an innovator and a visionary, often doing things and developing ideas years and even decades before other people caught on. She made things happen, and she changed things for the better.

In 1960, when America was barely conscious of what is now called “health food,” she published her Avant-Garde Cookbook, which focused on nutritious natural foods, prepared in tasty ways to keep the body healthy. She believed that the body has a great ability to take care of itself and to heal itself if nourished properly, and she showed readers how to achieve the benefits. Re-published many times by Natural Food Associates of Albuquerque, the book is still in print, and Betty also spread its message in person, through many years as a nutritional speaker and counselor.

A great lover of flowers, most especially roses, she made her Santa Fe home and yard a spectacular showcase, with more than 500 rose bushes, all organically grown, long before “organic” became a household word. As fame of her garden went out, she welcomed visitors from all over the world, and led tours for the Smithsonian Institution, the National Council of Garden Clubs, and the American Rose Society. She initiated the idea of having flower shows at the New Mexico State Fair, and was instrumental in creating the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, which began operations in 1987.

A lifelong seeker of spiritual insight and wisdom, Betty studied comparative religions in college, but found most belief systems rigid, inhibiting and suspect. Then she discovered the Unitarian/Universalist church, with its humanitarian focus and casual structure, and committed herself to it. First in Albuquerque, where she lived before moving to Santa Fe in 1970, she helped the congregation move from meeting in a music studio into buying land and building its own church. Then in Santa Fe she was active in expanding the local church from a room in a private home to a large, handsome structure.

Born in Albuquerque in 1905, Betty Berchtold attended the University of Illinois, but then was drawn back to New Mexico. With an insatiable zest for life, she held various positions in her hometown, including working in real estate. She played a formative role in the establishment in 1950 of the Council of Albuquerque Garden Clubs Inc., which went on to make flower shows a prominent part of the State Fair. She also worked ceaselessly to spread the knowledge she had gained about natural foods. But her main quest was to find a spiritual philosophy to which she could commit her life.

Coming from a line of Methodist and Presbyterian ministers, Betty was familiar with Protestantism, and also grew up with many Jewish and Catholic friends. But the more she learned about organized religion, the more she dismissed all forms of piety. She felt a reverence for life, but found structured religion false, and could not accept any “pie in the sky” doctrines, as she phrased it. “The more esoteric the doctrine, the more harm is done,” she said. Then she found the Unitarian church, and the “home” she was seeking.

First in Albuquerque, then in Santa Fe, she helped small congregations blossom. In Santa Fe in the 1970s, the church welcomed hippies with sleeping bags, and had speakers ranging from drug addicts to Native Americans to medical professionals to homeless people. Open to it all, Betty watched her emotional and intellectual life expand enormously. Giving back, she became the church’s “flower lady” and “health-food nut.”

Entering her 90s, Betty received several awards. In 1994 came the Medal of Merit from the Garden Club of America. In 1995 the Santa Fe Salon, a local discussion group honored her, as did the Unitarian/Universalist Women’s Federation. And also in 1995, Betty Berchtold became a Santa Fe Living Treasure.