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 as a baby with mother Ida and brother Lewis
Betty (center) with brothers Dick (l.) and Lewis (r.)
Betty at age 15 in 1927
Betty and Ward in 1936
Betty working at Disney’s Hyperion Studios ca. 1936
Betty and Ward at the Snow White wrap party in 1938
1930s drawing by Ward Kimball
Betty and Ward at The Three Caballeros wrap party
Betty and Ward at a Horseless Carriage Club outing
Betty, Ward, and children (l. to r.) Kelly, John and Chloe
Late-1940s drawing of Betty by Ward
Ward, Betty and daughter Chloe in 1968
Drawings of Betty by Ward
Dressed up for the 1970 Oscar ceremony
Betty posing as reference for a painting by Ward
Betty and Ward with Michael Jackson
1993 restaurant placemat drawing of Betty by Ward