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AnimatorsDisneyWard Kimball

Betty Kimball, R.I.P.

Betty Kimball

Betty Lawyer Kimball passed away last Thursday evening at the age of 97. She died from natural causes.

Betty (birth name: Mary Elizabeth Lawyer) was born on October 14, 1912 in Alhambra, California. After high school, she attended Pasadena Junior College and worked on various stage productions at the Alhambra Theater. In the mid-1930s, she directed one-act plays at the Pasadena Playhouse as part of a WPA arts project. In 1935, she was hired at Walt Disney Productions to work in the ink-and-paint department. At Disney, she met animator Ward Kimball whom she married in 1936. Their marriage last 66 years until Ward’s death in 2002.

Betty worked her way up the ranks at Disney and her duties expanded from painting cels to also choosing colors and creating color models to guide the work of other painters. She “did a lot of experimenting for Fantasia,” her husband Ward said. “She developed the dry-brush technique on cels.” She also provided live-action reference modeling for the title character in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when the live-action model, Marjorie Belcher, was unavailable.

She left the studio in mid-1939 to raise a family. Her life as a homemaker was hardly conventional due to the couple’s decision to install full-sized locomotives in their backyard which became known as the Grizzly Flats Railroad. She assumed an integral role in the railroad’s operation as it attracted national media attention and a steady stream of visitors.

Her husband Ward is an undeniable legend, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men and a great artist and director, but Ward’s achievements cannot be explained without some acknowledgment of Betty’s role. Beneath her petite frame was a resilient and strong woman. She was a teammate in many of Ward’s endeavors, and provided encouragement, grounding, and support throughout her lifetime. I had the privilege of getting to know Betty a little bit in the past few years, and she was one of the sweetest people one could hope to meet. It was inspiring to meet someone who maintained a positive outlook and sense of humor throughout their lifetime.

She is survived by three children, Kelly, John, and Chloe, and five grandchildren.

Here are some moments celebrating Betty’s life. All of the photos are from the Kimball Family Collection:

Betty Kimball
Betty as a baby with mother Ida and brother Lewis

Betty Kimball
Betty (center) with brothers Dick (l.) and Lewis (r.)

Betty Kimball
Betty at age 15 in 1927

Betty Kimball
Betty and Ward in 1936

Betty Kimball
Betty working at Disney’s Hyperion Studios ca. 1936

Betty Kimball
Betty and Ward at the Snow White wrap party in 1938

Betty Kimball
1930s drawing by Ward Kimball

Betty Kimball
Betty and Ward at The Three Caballeros wrap party

Betty Kimball
Betty and Ward at a Horseless Carriage Club outing

Betty Kimball
Betty, Ward, and children (l. to r.) Kelly, John and Chloe

Betty Kimball
Late-1940s drawing of Betty by Ward

Betty Kimball
Ward, Betty and daughter Chloe in 1968

Betty Kimball
Drawings of Betty by Ward

Betty Kimball
Dressed up for the 1970 Oscar ceremony

Betty Kimball
Betty posing as reference for a painting by Ward

Michael and Ward
Betty and Ward with Michael Jackson

1993 restaurant placemat drawing of Betty by Ward

  • I just love reading stories about couples who are also partners in crime.
    As me and my boyfriend are also 2 artists, this proves to me that it can work :)

    Looks like she was a strong woman and definitely made her mark in the animation industry.

    It’s a big loss.

    Where can I find more about her life? Is she mentioned in any Disney books?

  • jordan reichek

    wow. that’s very sad. wot a great lady! 3(

  • Roberto Severino

    Oh no! Another important person from the Golden Age of Animation. Dead. This is really sad. I had no idea the great Ward Kimball’s wife was still alive up to this point. Great condolences to her surviving family members, and I hope they’re doing well and remembering all the good things she did in her lifetime.

  • Wonderful pictures!

  • unclewayne

    These are beautiful memoirs….and i DO thank you for sharing. Once AGAIN! I had the (extreme) pleasure of meeting Mr. K. (WITH the “9 Old Men”) at a private N.Y. screening of “Fox & the Hound!” I felt like I had, truly, met royalty!

    And I HAD!!

  • I love that 1930s Valentine’s Day cartoon, with saintly Betty sweetly cradling her fiendish homunculous/little boy of a husband…An accurate depiction of MOST cartoonists’ wives…at least those who don’t divorce their hellish hubbies!

    RIP, Betty. We can only speculate on the kind of wacky behavior you had to endure!

  • Kevin O’Brien

    I love the pictures, too!

  • Rob Fendler

    In Michael Broggie’s book WALT DISNEY’S RAILROAD STORY, he describes a 4th of July party that took place 55 years ago at Disneyland prior to the park’s grand opening.
    “Perhaps the only guest who wasn’t completely thrilled with how the day started was Ward Kimball’s wife, Betty. She had been told by her husband that everyone would be dressed in 1900s-period costumes; as it turned out, only the Kimballs showed up in elaborate turn-of-the-entury attire. Betty was furious and embarrassed, thinking that Ward had played a trick on her because he liked to dress in outlandish costumes. She ended up going all the way home to change.”

  • Betty was more than a match for Ward. A lively, lovely and gracious woman, she was like a Gracie to his George in a lot of ways-including how he adored and respected her.

    Many thanks for sharing all the priceless images here. I never thought I’d see the original reference for that “gardening Betty” portrait that hung in their living room.

  • Great post Amid, wonderful tribute-what a lady!

  • Very nice drawings Ward made of his wife. Sad that she’s gone.

  • james madison

    Great Illustrations. I love the picture of the Ward’s and Michael Jackson.

    Always sad when the elders pass away. So much knowledge and great wealth of information to offer.


  • Thanks for this wonderful post, Amid. Only you could have found such magnificent photos and illustrations. It’s impossible to say which one I like most, they’re all so stunning. Though that “lat-40s drawing by Ward” showing her cradled in the chair is just one of the most loving drawings I’ve ever seen. The feet, the apple core, that dear face.

  • Fred Sparrman

    Looking at those photos was a little bit like watching the first 10 minutes (the GOOD 10 minutes) of “Up”. Thanks for a beautiful post.

  • Rob, this story is so funny!!!!

  • pheslaki

    While it’s sad she’s gone, it looks just from these few pictures as though she led a rich, full and wonderful life.

  • Mike Johnson

    Sad news indeed, but what a couple and what a life! I can’t even begin to imagine the fun and adventure they shared. What a great movie it would make! Thanks for sharing the pics and drawings…truly wonderful stuff!

  • It is always sad when someone from the Golden Age of Animation dies.

    Rest in Peace, Betty Kimball.

  • Wow! We each get one life and it looks like hers was fabulous. I’m envious.

    Was her continuing to work at Disney after marrying Kimball bending a workplace convention of the time?

  • So sad, but what a cute couple and beautiful pictures – they looked like they had fun in life and contributed so much to animation together. Thanks for posting these, Amid.

  • Scarabim

    66 freaking years. Amazing. What a tribute to them and a testament of what marriage can truly be like. I have a cousin who met her future husband in high school – yep, they’ll high school sweethearts – and they’ll be together for 50 years this October. I envy them and Ward and Betty and every other person who has been so fortunate as to have found their soulmate – and on the first try! Looks like you had a wonderful life, Betty. To quote Red Skelton: “Good night, and may God bless.”

  • Tom Slick

    This is sad news indeed, and marks another end of a golden era of dreamers who invented their sur-reality. My sincerest condolences to the Kimball Family and friends who might read this. Mr. & Mrs. Kimball probably would never have understood the impact, or the inspiration they had made on people that they had crossed paths with. An incredible couple with an almost unbelievable lifestyle, are finally reunited. RIP

    Thank you Amid for sharing the news and wonderful photos.
    -An appreciative Kimball fan

  • Wonderful photos and such great stories to read here. Thanks, Amid for sharing with us Betty’s life in drawings and photos. What a great loving relationship these two must’ve had. A great tribute. Thank you.

  • Leirin

    We lost another one of the greats. Thank you for providing all the photos/drawings in the post.

  • Great tribute and very inspiring drawings. Thanks!

  • Amid, I’ve always envied folks like you and Jerry for getting to know so many of the greats and their significant others, too. Betty seems every bit as great as Ward and just as deserving of recognition!
    Wonderful tribute; thanks for taking the time.

  • Brad Constantine

    My Condolences to the Kimball Family6. Thanks fer sharing these great drawrings and photos of what looks like a great life together!!

  • John Kimball and I would often have “movie night” over at his sister, Kelly’s place in Highland Park. On occasion we were joined by Ward and Betty. I confess I was thrilled to have the Kimballs all to myself.

    What an incredible family they were. It was such a delight to talk about the good old days of Disney with Ward and Betty because they saw it first hand.

  • Wonderful life, wonderful pictures and memories. Thanks for the post Amid.

  • Here’s to “grandma” Betty! Thank you for your wonderful children and all of the fun times at your house. You are really going to be missed.

  • David Dansky

    I had the privilege to know Ward and Betty through the love of old toy trains. Ward was a very playful iconoclast; Betty with total charm kept him in line! The old saying that behind every great man is a great woman was never more true than in this case. Ward and Betty will be missed by all who knew them. I think of them every day as I look at a lovely oil painting done by Ward that hangs above my fireplace. Truly an era the likes of which we will never see again has passed. How fortunate are those of us who got to know Betty and Ward.

  • I wish I’d known Betty. She looks like she was really special. The photo of her and Ward on the armchair may be the most charming couples picture I’ve ever seen.

  • great post, thanks for sharing this

  • What a great post! Wonderful photos and art.

    I had the pleasure of visiting Ward and Betty at their home back in the 1990’s. She was a pleasant and accommodating host. Oh yeah..her husband was pretty cool, too.

  • Her life seemed blessed in so many ways…a breathtaking tribute, Amid.

  • Charles K

    RIP, Betty. What wonderful pictures to see.

  • Eric Burgess

    She was a wonderful lady and so sweet to the neighborhood kids (I grew up in the house behind their property). Sorry to hear of her passing. Thank you for a lovely article on her.

  • Betty was a gracious lady to our family always. She encouraged our kids to play either in the pool or backyard and repeatedly found things related to Disney for the kids to take home to enjoy; even arranged a trip to Disneyland for us. Like grandparents to our kids, Amanda and Jeremy, Betty and Ward both loved without restraint. Sorry to hear of her passing as a visit a few years back, I asked Betty how she was doing. Betty without hesitation said ” Great, and I feel I will live to be 100″. Almost, and at 97 she lived a full life and our family will always remember her gracious manner and fondness of her garden and flowers. The article was a fitting tribute.

  • Much like Lillian Disney, Betty Kimball was the stalwart side for her husband, Ward. I had the privilege of writing history about the Kimballs for my book, Walt Disney’s Railroad Story. When I suggested to Ward and Betty that I should write a book just about them, Ward dismissed the idea, saying “you’ve already written too much!” Suffice to say, Ward wouldn’t have achieved many of his life’s goals without her unwaivering support and participation, not the least of which, becoming the first private citizens in the country, in 1938, to purchase their own full-sized steam engine, that became the Emma Nevada, an 1881 Baldwin 2-6-0.
    Two of a kind that will never be duplicated!

  • Susan Tomkovicz

    It is beautiful to see such a love story & know that they had so much in common to keep them together beyond the early years. They have a beautiful family and will be together now forever.
    Thanks for the beautiful pictures of a beautiful life..

  • Joe and Sharon Backer TCA

    Thanks for the beautiful memorial and pictures.A really inspiring woman and couple. Proud to have been associated with them through the toy train hobby.

  • Dave Freeman (Florida)

    I met Ward and Betty at the Orange Empire railway Museum where I was a volunteer in 1996. Two very excellent people, indeed. Not many know Betty was older than Ward. The “Emma Nevada”, the “Chloe” and other parts and pieces of the “Grizzly Flats Railway” were donated by Ward and Betty to the OERM Museum and are housed in an engine house also built with their generosity. If you wish to honor their memory in a very special way, you might consider donating to that fund at the museum for the continued preservation of that little piece of history. God Bless and keep.

  • Just an addendum in reference to Dave Freeman’s comment above: Ward Kimball was I believe born in 1913; if Betty died at 97 she was also a ’13 er-or 1912 at the earliest.
    Is that correct Amid?

  • Jesus…That series of photos and drawings was amazing. I’m humbled.

  • amid

    Betty was born on October 14, 1912.
    Ward was born on March 4, 1914.

  • Darrell Holmquist

    Betty was an amazing lady with a quick sense of humor. Though I only spent a very short time with her I found her to be an absolute delight. She and Ward were an amazing couple and both will be missed.

  • I was honored to be Betty and Wards son in law for nearly 10 years. I married their daughter Kelly. We have a daughter Laurey. They were the closes thing to parents that I knew. They were always very giving and for that I am eternally grateful. The pictures are wonderful. I didn’t know them before the 60’s. Betty was beautiful and the perfect fit for Ward. My daughter misses her grandmother a lot but she will cherish the memories as will I.

    • Hasan

      Hey Llyn, I was wondering, you might have known my dad then, he was Chloe’s roommate in the early 1970s, his name is Henri Cross, he’s told me so many stories about the Kimballs and it continually breaks my heart to hear of Betty’s passing for all she and Ward did for my dad in those days, my deepest and sincerest condolences to your blessed and most incredible family,


  • David Dewey

    While I am saddened to hear of Betty’s passing, I believe she and Ward are together again (and God is probably happy there’s now someone to keep an eye on Ward & his practical jokes).
    I met Betty & Ward at a Railroad Preservation Symposium and was privilege to have lunch and visit with them a few times. They were most gracious and unassuming folks. We enjoyed sharing our love of trains, steam (all kinds), toy trains, and horseless carriages.
    While I know there is nothing I can say to the family to relieve their loss, be aware that there are many around the world who remember them, and they will live on in our memories.
    David Dewey

  • Elsa Colette

    what a great woman Betty was. Betty loved to sing songs from her past. Betty will be very missed and remembered.
    God bless you, Mrs. Kimball!

  • Sydney Tabizon

    I worked with with Betty in the Summer and into the mid winter of 2008… What a beautiful person!!! We both watched the movie Frida , more than a couple of times and enjoyed it ……She would light up the room when I would mention her garden…I truly enjoyed her stories, and the songs she would sing too….R.I.P. Betty!!! Love, Sydney..

  • This is weeks after the date of the above post, but I just came back from being a pallbearer for my uncle – who was also born in 1912.

    If you are aware, there are moments in life when you say to yourself, “this is special, I need to soak this in and retain it for the rest of my life”. Looking at the photo of Ward, and Betty playing with the trombone, I think about that awareness – silly, splendorous, beautiful life.

    We had a six hour round trip drive today, accompanied by a lot of southern heat. When My partner wakes up from her nap, we need to have a splendorous, silly, beautiful evening.

    Thanks for the photos. They’ve been on my mind for awhile.

  • Craig J. Lane

    I once had the pleasure of meeting Ward. I can only imagine how special she must have been. A very touching tribute to the better half of a wonderful couple. We are all the better for their having met.

  • R.I.P.

    I love all the pictures with Betty and Ward, especially the picture with Betty sitting on Ward’s lap in his armchair, very moving.

    Betty, say ‘hello’ Ward Kimball for us!

  • David Breneman

    The look of love and devotion on Kimball’s face, even when clowning with her, is so compelling. How lucky they were in each other.

  • James Collins

    Betty and Ward are a couple that I could not forget after meeting them. I am enchanted by their life stories as portrayed here. I did not know that she was such a talented person! I have thought of them often and will often think of them in the future.

  • Steve Johnson

    I just saw this article and the news that Betty Kimball had passed away. Last time I saw her was in early 2010 or in late 2009, when I stopped by her home with a local Highway Patrol Captain and his little girl to show them a special place in my childhood, “Grizzly Flats Railroad” on Ardendale in San Gabriel. The Kimballs always made me feel special as a youngster. You see I was their paperboy (Pasadena Star News).. Back in the 60’s, we new our customers because we collected the subscription fee at the door. They were so nice to let me have the privilege of entering Grizzly Flats most anytime I asked. We all had so much fun climbing around on the rails cars and locomotives. I remember well the “Chloe” engine, the big locomotive the Kimballs built and the train station with every size train in the world in it! I’ll never forget the big cigar box Indian inside their front door, I was always looking to see if he moved behind the glass. As an adult, I know much more about the Kimball’s great fantasy world and their creations. This “kid” is humbled to have met them both.