Betsy stands in front of a display with information helpful to consumers about milk prices, the risks of aerosols, and high-sugar cereal
Betsy Wood in 1977, when she worked as a home economist for the Berkeley Co-op. Courtesy: Family of Betsy Wood

Betsy Rannells Wood, former Berkeley Co-op home economist and 72-year resident of the East Bay, died March 18 at Saint Paul’s Towers in Oakland. She was 94.

Betsy was born in New York in 1928 to Sooch and John Rannells. Sooch was a teacher and social worker, the daughter of poor Ukrainian immigrant Jewish parents. John was a civil engineer turned architect then city planner with western WASP roots. The family, with older sister, Linda, lived in Croton-on Hudson until Betsy was 3, then moved to the Upper West Side. Betsy attended the progressive Walden School where the desks were in a circle, not rows, and then NYC’s public High School for Music and Art. It was a lively and exciting place. Forming a student cooperative for purchase of art and music supplies was immensely challenging as well as rewarding. During WWII, kids needed to be out of the city and farmers needed help, so Betsy spent two summers working on farms.  They were summers she remembered and cherished vividly until her last days.   

Betsy Wood on a beach with the waves behind her
Betsy Wood in the 1940s in Montauk. Credit: John Rannells

Aspiring to help feed the world, Betsy attended Cornell University’s School of Agriculture with a scholarship from the City of New York. She found Cornell after the war dreadfully dull compared to her stimulating childhood in New York. Completing a BS in Agricultural Economics, she stayed to earn an MS in Food and Nutrition and Agriculture in 1951. 

The summer before finishing up at Cornell, Betsy travelled west. Her first day in town, she got a temporary job at the Berkeley Co-op, went to a Co-op meeting that night and struck up a conversation with a tall, handsome man sitting down the row. Betsy and Mal Wood were married in 1951 in New York. After driving back west that winter in a car with no heater, they lived in a garden cottage with no bath while Mal, a UC Berkeley grad student, was a night clerk at the downtown YMCA. Betsy worked as a food technologist at the USDA’s Western Regional Lab in Albany and later as a home economist at the Berkeley Co-op, then only one store on University Avenue. Betsy and Mal moved to a flat on Parker Street before Danny was born, and into their house on Madera Street before Rachel was born 2 years later.  

The Co-op home economists had a prominent role in many East Bay households of the 1960s and 1970s. Not only did they inform members about eating nutritiously, economically, and well in the store with changing exhibits, demonstrations, and personal contacts, their Co-op news columns and books were read in households all over the East Bay. In later years they included education on how families can protect the environment at home. Betsy and her colleagues also took consumers’ interests to Sacramento, spearheading groundbreaking legislation on truth in packaging, ingredient labelling, against price fixing and more. 

While always city residents, Betsy and Mal took their family outside whenever they could.  There was a camping trip when Rachel was 3 weeks old in cloth diapers followed by innumerable trips to Tomales Bay and Point Reyes, sailing, clam digging, canoeing, walking, picnicking winter nights under the drippy dark redwoods in a deserted Sam Taylor Park and summer weeknight picnics in Tilden. Betsy later joined Rachel and her family on adventures elsewhere, including canoeing 100 miles through Missouri Breaks National Monument with Rachel, by themselves, seeing no other boats after the first day.

Wearing a necklace, earings and a shirt with roses, she rests her head in her hand
Wood in 2003. Courtesy: Family of Betsy Wood

After the Co-op, Betsy worked various extension, university and agency jobs in food and nutrition, then was back with the Co-op warehouse. Wanting new challenges and needing more income when she and Mal divorced after 30 years of marriage, she signed on as an industrial sales rep for a new manufacturer of storage buildings for hazardous materials.  It was a huge learning curve, but she rose mightily to the challenge and was thrilled with the top-notch relationships she forged with her customers, if not her cutthroat sales colleagues. Those effective customer relations fueled sales and enabled her to retire comfortably within 10 years.

Betsy was a lifelong artist, but after retiring, she packed her life brim full of creativity, color, adventures, and friends. She did hundreds of large, bold paintings, many of them from her dreams, sharing them wherever she could. She joined or expanded on groups of likeminded, mostly women who shared dreams, dream art, 12-step art, journal writing, and creative improv dance. Her house on Madera Street was a well-used and favorite gathering place for innumerable potlucks. For 12 years, she took great satisfaction helping kids read at Malcolm X Elementary School in Berkeley.   

Wood has backed up into a houseplant
Wood in 2010. Courtesy: Family of Betsy Wood

Betsy always cared about what was right and was particularly passionate about the evils of war. She wrote letters, marched, sent money and canvassed door to door on civil rights, a clean environment, fair housing, for peace, took nonviolent nuclear arms protest training, and rolled her 100-year-old mother, Sooch, in her wheelchair with Mothers Against Guns.

Betsy embarked on many adventures, immersing herself in these rich places, people and cultures with immense respect and pleasure. She was alone at the Oracle of Delphi at dawn, stayed with artist and farm families in Bali and Ireland, climbed the Great Wall of China and watched from a boat, aghast, under massive calving glaciers in Glacier Bay.  Multi-day family canoe trips as a teenager in New York’s finger lakes were the beginning of many — canoeing and portaging in British Columbia, rafting the Yampa River, canoeing the Green River through Canyonlands National Park, kayaking and camping with grey whales in Baja, and marveling at mass wildflower blooms in Anza Borrego State Park. In between, Betsy spent countless weekends in her beloved Point Reyes National Seashore.

After 48 years in her house on Madera Street in Berkeley, Betsy moved to a senior residence at Saint Paul’s Towers in Oakland.  Betsy took full advantage of St. Paul’s, forging close friendships, riding the van to museums, plays and concerts, joining meditation, emotional support, racism reflection groups, and more. She continued painting and took up clay sculpture with passion. Her crack Home Economist exhibit-making skills were back with gusto with the Green Action Committee. The past few years, macular degeneration, worry about memory lapses and severe back spasms slowed Betsy down considerably, but she still enjoyed music, books on tape, and talking with family and friends.

Betsy is predeceased by her parents, John and Sooch Rannells, sister, Linda Lewis Bullard, and ex-husband Mal Wood. She is survived and missed by her son Danny Wood (Teng), daughter Rachel Potter (Jack), granddaughter Elena Potter, great-granddaughter Ellie Sidharath, and many precious nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends.

The family asks that donations be made in Betsy’s memory to the Alameda County Community Food Bank or the charity of your choice.