LOVE, WAR, SURVIVAL, SKIING: Daughter-in-law of visionary behind Winter Park Resort talks horrors, excitement of her youth
Betty Cranmer loves doing word searches. At 96-years-old she lives alone in an unassuming yet beautiful two-story house in Granby, surrounded by photos of loved ones, an impressive personal library and knickknacks from her long and illustrious life. But her favorite hobby is word searches.
“I only allow myself two a day, otherwise it’s all I’d do,” she said.
As an activity, it’s subtle and perhaps calming, but far from strange, though it does serve as a stark contrast to the excitement yet horror of her younger years.
Cranmer was born in London, the youngest of three. She attended a girl’s school until she was 18, when the war effort required her service. She enlisted in the Royal Air Force with ambitions of joining a fighter squadron, but decided instead to go into the medical side of things. But even early on the war was taking its toll.
“I’d lost my boyfriend,” she said. “He was an Australian, and he was shot down. They never found his remains. One of the guys who was flying alongside him said that he went pretty low to drop his bombs, and I think he was blown up.”
Cranmer attended medical school for a year, and eventually became a nurse at a burn and plastic surgery hospital in East Grinstead, England, about 30 miles south of London. Most of the patients were pilots; most suffering from brutal burns to their faces. She said she used her sense of humor to help keep morale high among patients and staff, constantly joking with the injured to keep their spirits up.
A single bottle of water — for 2 weeks
She spent nearly five years at the hospital, but before she left she met Frederick (Henry) Mahn.
Mahn was a Denver native who joined the Canadian Air Force in 1939, before the United States had entered the war effort. According to Cranmer, his plane was shot down over the North Sea, leaving Mahn and two others stranded on a lifeboat with no food, and a single bottle of water.
“They thought they were going to get picked up, because planes would come over patrolling,” said Cranmer. “But they didn’t.”
While the two others passed away, Mahn survived for two weeks on the raft, with only the blood and innards of a single seagull that had landed on his stomach to sustain him.
After fourteen days on the seas, a British gunship spotted him, and took him to a hospital in Northern England, his feet and legs in terrible condition. He was later transferred to East Grinstead where he met Cranmer, and the two connected.
“I used to take him out in his wheelchair,” recalled Cranmer with a smile. “I used to take him down to the pub many evenings, and it was a good mile and a half to push him down and push him back.”
She tells a harrowing story about taking Mahn to the movies one day. In the middle of the film she checked her watch, and told Mahn they had to return to the hospital. Moments later a German plane opened fire on the surrounding area.
“I just clung to a lamp post,” she said. “I don’t know what good that would have done, but I just needed to hold something because I was scared. Then he circled around and opened fire again.”
Cranmer and Mahn took off back toward the hospital. As casualties from the attack began showing up, Cranmer realized the depth of the situation. A bomb struck the theater they had just left, killing 80 people and injuring over 250.
Not long after, doctors decided that Mahn’s legs would need to be amputated below the knees. He was fitted with artificial legs, yet still returned to duty flying in a Spitfire.
The two married and moved to Cambridge, England, where they had their first child. But on one random night, Mahn began to complain of pains and was taken to the hospital.
In the morning, doctors delivered the devastating news: they told Cranmer that her new husband had peritonitis and diverticulitis, and only had days left to live.
“England was still pretty bad with the rations and the baby,” she said. “So Henry said, ‘Go to America.’ It was hard because I had my family (in England). But I knew that was the best thing to do.”
Mahn passed away just a few days later.
It was then that Cranmer discovered that she was two months pregnant with their second child. So, she decided to move to Denver, where she lived with Mahn’s father, her mother came alone to help with the children.
Marrying the son of the ‘Father of Winter Park’
In Denver she met Chappell Cranmer, priest of the now Cranmer Chapel in Winter Park, and son of George and Jean Cranmer. George Cranmer, perhaps more commonly known as the “Father of Winter Park,” was the visionary behind the ski area, as well as Red Rocks Amphitheater.
The two started a courtship, and Chappell soon proposed.
“I said maybe in a year or two, I was still getting over losing my first husband,” she said. “But my mother told me not to wait and that he was perfect for me, and his parents were pushing me as well. So I gave in and we got married in October.”
She had four more children with Cranmer, making six total: Susan, Bruce, Allen, Holbrook, Jeanie and Forest. Forest was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 13, and soon lost the use of one arm and leg. He passed away at the age of 33 after choking to death. Her second husband passed away in 2000.
A QUAINT LIFE future
While living in Colorado, Cranmer received her degree in early childhood development and moved to Granby where she started working at Granby Elementary. She retired from teaching when she was 69, but continued to volunteer up until just last year.
“I figured at 96 I can finally retire,” she said. “But I’m still very active.”
Cranmer said she rarely leaves Granby these days, but is still an active member of the community. She attends several Bible studies every week, including one that she holds at her home. She said she also enjoys visiting the senior center in Granby, along with — astonishingly — biking about seven to eight miles a day on the stationary bike in her living room.
“That’s pretty much what I do. I have family come for weekends when ski season starts. That’s what I like to do is have people around. I’m thankful that I can still walk around and I don’t use a cane yet,” she said, beaming. “And I still have those 13 stairs to go up and down to bring my shopping bags up.”
And, of course, twice a day she does her word search.
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Grand Concerts is hosting its first live event in 17 months featuring the Boston Brass on Friday at the Headwaters Pavilion in Winter Park.