Bakersfield residents who knew her well say it's impossible to list the myriad contributions Betty Younger made to the local community.
The longtime sculptor, philanthropist, supporter of established artists as well as those struggling to break through the canvas curtain, has died at the age of 88.
"Betty was an extremely creative individual. She was a connoisseur of art and was heavily involved in the local arts community," said longtime Bakersfield attorney Timothy Lemucchi, who for decades practiced law alongside Younger's late husband, Milt Younger, who died in 2017.
As a team, the couple seemed to be unstoppable. Perennial champions of the local arts, local artists, the Bakersfield Symphony, and charities of all sorts, the pair believed giving back to the community was critical.
They opened the Younger Gallery in 2002, although the downtown art space really came into its own a few years later.
Numerous local artists and students have exhibited their works in the gallery over the years, including Mrs. Younger herself, a sculptress whose larger works can be seen in public and private spaces around town and beyond, including outside the Bank of America building where the gallery was located.
A few years ago, when Betty Younger realized she needed to step away from managing the gallery, Vicki Smart, an art teacher at Bakersfield High School, volunteered her time to curate the gallery for two years.
"They have been tremendous supporters of the local community ... beyond what people can imagine," Smart said Wednesday of the Youngers. "We lost a lot when we lost those two."
Smart recalls telling Betty Younger that the gallery must be willing to take chances, must be willing to exhibit edgy and challenging art that makes people think.
"Bakersfield can be conservative," Smart said. But Betty had the courage to highlight young artists who some might view as controversial.
Betty never wavered in her support, she said.
According to a 2014 profile in Bakersfield Life, Younger originally dreamed of becoming an architect, but social mores at the time dictated women focus their talents elsewhere.
"So, like many women her age, Younger obtained degrees in art and a teaching credential and went into the classroom," wrote contributing writer Lisa Kimble.
Imagine the diminutive, impeccably coiffed Younger wearing a welding mask and working to sculpt an image from what started as a 1,200-pound steel pipe.
Reached Wednesday, Kimble was keenly aware of what the community has lost — yet also thankful for what the community has gained thanks to Betty and Milt Younger.
"Betty was small in stature, but a giant force of talent and community support," Kimble said in a text. "One would be hard-pressed to find an organization in town that hasn't been supported in some way by Betty and her late husband Milt. She loved Bakersfield and was passionate about public art."
Metro Galleries owner Don Martin said he met Milt and Betty Younger more than 25 years ago when he was gallery director at C.L. Clark Galleries.
"What struck me immediately about them was how committed they were to the arts," Martin recalled Wednesday. "They did so much for all areas of the local arts community, from the symphony to sponsoring exhibits and buying art — they were always there.
"Today when I heard of Betty’s passing I was saddened to think I won’t see her walk into my new gallery space when I open," Martin said. "She’s not only been a supporter and friend to me, she has also been one of the artists that I have represented."
When Martin opened Metro 12 years ago, Younger was the first person he reached out to, and the first local artist he asked to be exhibited in the new gallery.
Cal State Bakersfield President Lynnette Zelezny said in a statement Younger is a shining example for her "tireless support of artists, arts education and the development of our city’s cultural life."
The university, Zelezny said, "is deeply grateful for the friendship of Mrs. Younger and her late husband, Milt, particularly their generous support of the university’s Development Business Center. But appropriately, Mrs. Younger’s CSUB legacy will live on in her public art: the whimsical sculpture “Owl of Knowledge,” which brings smiles to the faces of students, faculty, staff and visitors every day.”
Many who lamented the loss of the Youngers on Wednesday wondered if we will ever see their like again.
"It’s the end of an era," Martin said. "I don’t think they make 'em like Milt and Betty anymore."