Betty Lee Bittel, 68, medical secretary at St. Agnes, Walters Art Museum docent

October 19, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Betty Lee Bittel, a retired medical secretary and Walters Art Museum docent, died of West Nile encephalitis Tuesday at St. Agnes HealthCare. She was 68.

The longtime Catonsville resident was the fifth Marylander to die this year of the mosquito-borne West Nile infection.

Mrs. Bittel, who was born and raised Betty Lee Lyons in West Baltimore, attended the Institute of Notre Dame. In 1973, she earned an associate's degree from Catonsville Community College.

She worked in the late 1940s and early 1950s for the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. before her marriage in 1953 to William P. Bittel, a former supervisor in the Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s technical writing section. He died in 1977.

Mrs. Bittel worked as a medical secretary in the maternity department of St. Agnes Hospital (now St. Agnes HealthCare) in Southwest Baltimore. She retired in 1998, which left her with only one job: In 1992, she had begun training as a volunteer docent for the Walters Art Museum.

"She couldn't even draw a stick figure, but she loved art galleries," said her daughter, Lisa Lee Clark of Phoenix, Baltimore County.

Mrs. Bittel especially loved conducting tours for schoolchildren. "She was a good story-teller, and had good body language and vocal color," said John J. Shields, who heads the docent program. "She wanted them to feel comfortable while visiting the museum, and to understand how the artwork related to their lives."

Zelma M. Holzgang, also a docent and a friend of 10 years, described Mrs. Bittel as being that "rare combination: a gentle, loving individual with a wicked sense of humor.

"Betty Lee was the perfect docent -- outgoing and knowledgeable, always upbeat and positive even with the neediest of the special-needs children," said Mrs. Holzgang, who lives in Towson.

She enjoyed watching Mrs. Bittel ignite languid students.

"I remember watching her act out the Mannerist paintings of Judith and Holofernes for a group of blase high school students," Mrs. Holzgang said. "While they watched open-mouthed, she gleefully wielded her imaginary sword as if she were slicing through French bread. The previously bored kids were mesmerized."

Another time, when she caught students giggling at the nude statuary, she threatened to end the tour and have them spend the rest of the day studying pictures of saints, Mrs. Holzgang said.

Mrs. Bittel liked Betty Boop memorabilia because she was nicknamed for the 1930s cartoon character. She also collected giraffe figures because they were "tall and elegant," said her daughter. "She even slept with a stuffed giraffe."

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at Sterling-Ashton-Schwab Funeral Home, 736 Edmondson Ave., Catonsville.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Bittel is survived by a son, Bill Bittel of Orlando, Fla.; a sister, Mary Small Davis of Se- bring, Fla.; and two grandchildren.

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