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Betsy Fenti overcame illness to become an inspiration

From the Hornell Evening Tribune

By ROBERT J. ROBERTS - CANISTEO VALLEY EDITOR

HORNELL - It becomes difficult for those who knew and loved Betsy O'Hern Fenti to find the right words to describe the ebullient personality that was so much greater than her physical disability.

"How do I describe a rainbow?" said Sharon Haley.

"Rainbow" is an apt analogy: In rising above the spinal muscular atrophy that cost her the use of her extremities, Fenti became a source of wonder and inspiration. "Rainbow," in fact, was the name Fenti used when communicating on her beloved computers.

Hornell's rainbow disappeared without warning on Wednesday evening, when Fenti died at age 42 in St. James Mercy Hospital. She reportedly had been suffering from flu-like symptoms when she died suddenly of cardiac arrest.

"Talk about your profile in courage - right there is a wonderful example of the human spirit," said Hornell Mayor Shawn Hogan, whose connection to Fenti traces back to childhood. Hogan recalls when he was about 9 or 10 years old and being in the public health clinic in the old City Hall on the day when Fenti, a baby, was diagnosed with the genetic disorder.

"She was a tremendous young lady, who never let her handicaps bother her in any way," said Hogan. "She was an inspiration to me all my life."

Fenti's drive and organizational skills were almost legendary. For years, she kept the Hornell Fourth of July Committee going when other volunteers dropped out. With her devoted husband, Frank Fenti, she formed a computer club. She had one club where she exchanged books with friends, and another (which she named "The Misfits") which played cards.

"She was always organizing. She was the glue that held everybody together," said Haley.

Again, the organizing spirit was evident when she was planning her traditional party on the Sunday before Memorial Day. "She always had a theme," said Haley, whom Fenti had nicknamed "Martha Stewart."

"A couple of weeks ago, she said, 'Martha, I need a theme for Memorial Day,'" Haley said. They decided that the dish-to-pass party would feature favorite colored foods.

"She was a terribly, terribly bright person and an excellent person," added friend Betty Arcangeli, who noted Betsy O'Hern had graduated 21st in a class of 270 at Hornell High School in 1978.

"She had a marvelous sense of humor. She passed along some of the best jokes to me on e-mail," said Arcangeli.

It was on the computer that Betsy O'Hern Fenti found the mobility denied her by spinal muscular atrophy. "I don't know what her life would be like without the computer. She'd do everything with that," said Arcangeli.

Her skill was evident five years ago, after taking a job with the Hornell City School District. Her "very demanding" role was to call substitutes for teachers unable to come to class, which occurred daily, recalled David Lampila, the district's director of business and computer services whose friendship with her began in 1986.

"When she took over the job, it was all paper and pencil, very time-consuming and done manually," said Lampila. Betsy and Frank Fenti switched the district's substitute program to the computer, after figuring out what facilities were needed so that Betsy could do the work out of her home.

What was most remarkable about Betsy Fenti, say her friends, was a personality that was so radiant and positive that those in her presence eventually did not realize she was in a wheelchair or was stricken with a disease.

In her own conversations, friends say Fenti would ignore her limitations by talking about walking downtown or making cookies.

"Particularly when she was active with the electric wheelchair - she got along on her own, did what she wanted to do and was quite a force," Lampila said. "She got around in the wheelchair and talked as if she were able-bodied, so you just forgot."

She loved to read, which meant putting a book on a easel and turning pages with a wand, and had just ordered "a huge box of books that was going to be her summer reading," said Arcangeli.

Family friends also credit Frank Fenti with the selfless attention he gave his wife. "He's a special person. He did everything for her, and did it happily," said Arcangeli, even when it meant taking a trip last summer to a baseball game in Yankee Stadium.

"She loved to go out and socialize, and Frank was just so wonderful about that," Arcangeli said.