Betty Pleva is a great storyteller and her vibrancy is contagious. No wonder she was such a valued and loved Kindergarten teacher at Pentwater Public Schools for so many years. And no wonder she has such a positive presence in the Pentwater community.
When I met her, she pulled up in her white Corvette convertible, which of course required a great story about how her husband Gary surprised her with it for her 50th birthday. The story goes that at the family gathering someone announced, “We have a set of Corvette keys here and Betty Pleva’s name is on them.” She definitely looks good in that car!
And then there’s the white grand piano that Betty craved and Gary said they couldn’t afford. But Gary, the master of surprises, used a friend to get her out of the house so the piano could be delivered.
Apparently, the couple has enjoyed a lot of fun times together. This fall, they are embarking on a 26-day voyage for their 47th anniversary, stopping in Oregon and Washington before traveling up the coast to Vancouver, where they will celebrate their actual anniversary, and then on to Alaska for a cruise and train trip. because, explains Pleva, “Gary loves trains!”
The couple first met on July 26, 1970 in Leelanau County, where Gary lived and Pleva vacationed. While she was sitting on a rock watching some guys have a mud ball fight, she met Gary as he threw a mud ball at her feet. “The next morning I went to church and he’s an altar boy,” she laughs. And then she happened to go waterskiing with a male friend and Gary joined her as an observer. When he asked her if her boyfriend was her boyfriend, she quickly replied, “Oh no, Mike and I are just friends,” encouraging Gary to walk up to her and put his arm around her. And the rest is history.
Pleva lived in Muskegon, so their relationship was long-distance. They wrote letters (snail mail) almost every day, and their mothers kept all the letters. Pleva’s parents bought a piece of land in Leelanau and built a cottage there so that the couple could meet every summer.
While at school, Pleva took piano lessons (hence the white grand piano) and played the clarinet in a band before graduating from Muskegon Catholic High School in 1971. After high school, she majored in psychology and special education at Central Michigan University. But she spent the summers in Leelanau so she could be with Gary. “I spent two summers studying as a ranger at Sleeping Bear State Park, registering campers, doing bookwork, giving nature tours, driving a garbage truck, and reporting waves for a Michigan State Study.” The other two summers of college she was a waitress at the Leland Lodge where Gary worked. Her parents had agreed to pay for her room and board if she paid her tuition, which at the time was $15 an hour. “I spent my entire tip on that,” she recalls. Meanwhile, Gary went to Ferris and studied restaurant management, and they married right out of college in 1975.
In 1976, when she saw an ad for a job at the Ludington Elks, the two rode up for the interview on Gary’s old motorcycle and saw Pentwater. “We really liked the city,” she says, “so we moved there when he got the job.”
“In the beginning I didn’t work and, believe it or not, I sewed Gary’s dress shirts, including the cuffs and collars,” says Pleva. “That’s when I knew I had to find a job, so I just went to Hart Community Mental Health and said, ‘Hi, my name is Betty Pleva and I would like an application for a job.'” Without a hit miss, the receptionist said, “We only have one opening.” Pleva took the job at the Friends Program — similar to Big Brothers-Big Sisters — and was able to use her psychology degree.
The following year she was hired to teach part-time Kindergarten at Pentwater Schools. Ironically, as a child, her father had asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, and when she said she wanted to teach kindergarten, he’d replied, “You’re better at that.” But she loved teaching kindergarten and ended up getting a full-time contract . Eventually, she earned a Masters in Special Education and PPI (Disabled Preschool) through a live television program offered by Grand Valley, which she attended once a week with a group from the Pentwater Schools.
The Plevas had three children, Stephanie, who now lives in Tampa, has two children and is an architect; Joseph, who lives in East Grand Rapids, has two children and is a regional manager at a packaging company; and Jonathan, who married last summer and works for Larson’s Landscaping in Ludington. When they were young, Pleva says, “My teaching career worked well with our family. Pentwater is a small school where you know who the families are and where everyone is connected and I could even look out the window and see my kids at recess.”
Incredibly, in 1978, when Stephanie was a baby, a couple approached the Plevas and said, “We have heard that you are good people and we would like to rent our house to you.” The fully furnished house was furnished with a sailboat, a Supplied with snowmobile and other gear so after some negotiation it was perfect at $155 a month. Wanting their house back, the Plevas found plenty and built a house, with Gary doing much of the work himself.
Pleva retired from teaching in 2010, taking advantage of an early buyout. It took her a month to clean up her classroom. “I often filled the dumpster,” she recalls. “It was very difficult to say goodbye, but it was the right time. My mom moved in with us so I could be in her home.” During her retirement, Pleva has worked in the special education room and also received an ISD RTI (Response to Intervention) grant by consulting with teachers and paraprofessionals to help Helping students who are lagging behind.
Over the years, Pleva has been active in her church, teaching religion at St Vincent’s and presiding over the roast pork shared with St Joseph’s in Hart. When a parent group worked with Father Charlie Brown to start a youth group and choir, her son Joseph and the youth leader played guitar while she played keyboards.
Pleva was also involved in the Pentwater Jr. Women’s Club, where he served as past president, and now the Senior Women’s Club. She tells another story about playing Mrs. Claus for her daughter’s Junior Women’s Club group in Florida at Christmas and reading to the children while they waited for Santa. “It was fun, because when the grandchildren were little, they didn’t realize that I was Mrs. Claus.”
As a board member of the Pentwater Lake Association, Pleva was asked to work with the school and in collaboration with Rick Magrath, English teacher, and Kelly Sisung, computer teacher, planned a speech contest on the theme of “Keepers of the Lake” with a focus on water conservation and what’s in the water lives and needs to be protected. The competition will take place in October this year and Magrath is making it part of its lecture program.
The Plevas have been members of the Yacht Club ever since they bought and sailed their former landlord’s boat (named ‘Recess’!). She plays golf when she can and goes to a book club. They also visit their mother’s cottage in Leelanau and own 120 acres of protected land near Walkerville, where they have a log cabin by a small lake.
The Pleva family likes to travel and went to Germany in 1995. “I called it the American invasion,” Pleva laughs. And before 9/11, they drove west with the boys to the national parks and lugged all their camping gear on the plane, even their propane stove.
Recently Pleva, her sister, daughter and granddaughter Charlie (named after Pleva’s father who died in 1977) went to France. “We called it ‘Marie’s girls are going to France,'” she explains (Marie is her mother’s name). And there were many stories. In a small village church, they viewed a memorial plaque to deceased sailors, current until 2020, and saw Pleva’s maiden name, Hamel, on the memorial plaque. Then Pleva shows me a photo of herself at the Eiffel Tower in Paris with a bandage on her head. They had just been in Paris six hours and were walking to catch the subway, utterly enchanted by everything around them, when Pleva tripped over a raised railing, fell, fractured a couple of ribs, shattered her glasses and one suffered a severe laceration on his forehead. The paramedics came and when she refused to go to the hospital they sent her to a pharmacist to have her bandaged. The photo shows her wearing a beret that Gary had given her, which somewhat (but not completely) covered the bandage. “I looked like a tourist,” she laughs.
Now on her bucket list is returning to France to make her home in a village. They also want to drive their RV south and west to Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nevada and Arizona.
Family is very important to Pleva and she was grateful that they all came to take care of her in 2020 when she had a hip prosthesis. There is of course a story to this. The family had planned to stay for six days but ended up staying for eight weeks due to Covid. “Rehab was interesting,” Pleva recalls. “The house was full of children, toys, shoes and dogs everywhere. But it was great fun!”