Elizabeth “Betty” Seiberling, a conservationist and widow of retired Akron congressman John S. Seiberling, died Tuesday night in her sleep. She was 96.

Mrs. Seiberling is remembered as a strong, intelligent woman with a love for the outdoors by her family and community members. Mrs. Seiberling and her husband were avid conservationists, environmentalists and peace activists, and she stood not behind him, but beside him, as he played a key role in Congress in preserving more than 100 million acres of land across the country.

“It’s very easy to look at the spouses of people who are making a mark and think they’re simply living in shadow of their spouse, but she really was John’s partner,” said Deb Yandala, CEO of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. “She was a woman ahead of her time in many ways.”

Betty Behr grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. She graduated from Vassar College with German language skills, according to the Akron Council on World Affairs.

She worked for the Office of Strategic Service (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, during World War II. In 1944, she went to London to translate and analyze captured German documents. When Germany surrendered in 1945, she continued her counterintelligence work in Wisebaden.

She was granted time off from the OSS that year and vacationed in Paris, where John was working at the time.

John’s sister, a classmate of Betty’s at Vassar, encouraged her to connect with John. The two had their first date in Paris in 1945.

“As she likes to tell it, she mustered all her strength to call him, because that was not permissible in 1945. Girls did not call boys,” said Jackie Fay, who was Mrs. Seiberling’s caretaker the past nine years.

Betty returned to the United States after that to work for the CIA in Washington while John went to law school at Columbia University.

She and John kept in touch over the years and married in 1949.

Mrs. Seiberling later told the press that she accepted his marriage proposal because he respected “women’s intellectual capabilities.”

An active life

Mrs. Seiberling often accompanied John on his political endeavors, including a congressional delegation to the Middle East in 1975, where the two met with leaders in Cairo and Jerusalem to normalize relations with foreign countries.

“Congressional wives are not as deeply engaged as Betty Seiberling had been all of her life,” said Tom Sawyer, a former Akron mayor, U.S. congressman and state senator who has known the Seiberlings nearly 50 years. With the Seiberlings’ endorsement, Sawyer was elected to succeed John in Congress when he decided not to seek re-election in 1986.

“That she was able to do that with a family that is deeply part of the historical fabric of the Akron community, as the founding family of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., was really quite extraordinary.”

She and John enjoyed traveling even more so after he retired, making their way west and up to Alaska, and then around the world to places like European and Middle Eastern countries.

The couple had been married for 59 years at the time of John’s death in 2008.

Mrs. Seiberling continued to be active in local organizations, including the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the University of Akron’s Women’s Club (UAWC), after her husband died. John co-sponsored legislation that established Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in 1974.

Yandala said Mrs. Seiberling was still active at the park in her later years. Mrs. Seiberling didn’t just enjoy hiking on the trails herself — she enjoyed seeing children and other members of the community using them as well.

“She wasn’t a native of Akron, but she really loved Akron, she really adopted our community,” Yandala said. “She cared very strongly about issues around peace and justice and had a concern for people ... Her keen intellect was truly inspiring to me.”

Mrs. Seiberling died in her Copley home, where she and John lived out the last 20 years of their lives together.

Fay said the home they chose was surrounded by forestry.

“That was just another way they celebrated the outdoors,” Fay said.

Mrs. Seiberling is survived by sons John B. of Washington, D.C., David (Kelly Hillery) of Akron, Stephen of Hill, N.C.; and grandson Evan of Akron.

A service will be held at 1:30 p.m. June 30 at Billow’s Funeral Home, 85 N. Miller Road.

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com.