DDN ‘Mother of the Year,’ who raised kids after husband declared MIA in Vietnam War, dies at 83

Mary "Betty" Foley. CONTRIBUTED
Mary "Betty" Foley. CONTRIBUTED

Mary "Betty" Foley — a mother who raised five children after her husband Lt. Col. Brendan Foley, an Air Force pilot, disappeared over Laos in 1967 — died Thursday, according to her obituary. She was 83.

Longtime Dayton Daily News columnist Dale Huffman named Foley the newspaper’s “Mother of the Year” in 1994.

After her husband was shot down over Laos in November 1967 during an unarmed reconnaissance flight and declared missing in action, Foley, of Huber Heights, became an activist and coordinator for the National League of Families of American Prisoners Missing in Southeast Asia, according to the newspaper archives.

She also welcomed into her home six refugees of the war.

“I agonized; I prayed for guidance; I begged for wisdom; I searched for some way we could transform our despair into hope. The answer I sought came when the plea went out for people to sponsor refugee families. The kids and I applied to become sponsors,” she wrote in a 2000 Dayton Daily News retrospective of the war.

“I know my husband wanted to help bring peace and freedom to the people of South Vietnam. I know he kept that goal in the forefront as he performed his mission. In his absence, his family did what we could do — to help bring peace and freedom to one family — in his honor.”

Her husband was presumed dead in October 1980.

As an activist, Foley led efforts to obtain information under the Freedom of Information Act, exploring avenues on behalf of almost 2,500 U.S. military personnel listed as missing in action and unaccounted for.

"I want the men accounted for and if they are alive, I want them brought home,” she said in a 1993 newspaper profile.

Republished in full are two Huffman columns:


By Dale Huffman

Published May 8, 1994

Kevin Richard Foley was 6 years old at the time, and the pressures of life were getting to him. His father had gone off to war and never returned. He was the youngest of five children vying for attention from mother, and he felt no one cared.

So he ran away from home.

"I got to the end of our street and I sat down on the sidewalk and pouted," he said. "I would have gone on - but heck, I wasn't allowed to cross the street."

Soon his mother, Betty Foley, arrived. She sat beside him on the curb and put an arm around him.

"She told me that she knew things were sometimes frantic and busy at our house, and that maybe she didn't always show enough attention to each of the kids. But she held me close, and said she loved me, and we went and got a chocolate shake at Dairy Queen and the world was OK again."

Kevin Foley is 27 now, and on April 12 he and his wife Jeanne became parents for the second time. New arrival Sean joined brother Kyle, who's 16 months old. "As my family grows it got me thinking about the responsibilities and challenges of parenthood," he said.

So he sat down and composed a letter nominating his mother for special honors.

"I realize it a lot more now. Being a mother requires the ability to manage not only your personal sanity, but also the daily tasks of creating a home where children take positive leadership," he wrote. "My mother has shown the ability to handle all that comes her way . . . giving birth to five children, losing her husband, struggling a lot, but being an inspiration and a teacher for us all. She is the greatest."

She did it alone

His mom, Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Foley is now 59, and still lives in the same Huber Heights home where she reared her five children. She did it alone after her husband, Brendon, an Air Force pilot, was shot down over Laos and declared missing in action in 1967 during the Vietnam War.

Kevin's letter worked. His mother is to be honored today as the Miami Valley Mother of the Year during a reception and dinner at Charley's Restaurant on Courthouse Square downtown at 1 p.m.

She choked up when told she had been selected from more than 1,500 mothers from all over the Miami Valley who had been nominated for the honor by loved ones.

'Quite an honor'

"I only did what I had to do. I only did the things that a mother does," she said. "This is quite a surprise. Quite an honor."

In addition to Kevin, Foley's children include Brendon Jr., 34, who is a single certified public accountant and lives in Columbus. Moira Foley Dressel, 33, is married to Fred and recently left her teaching job to raise Brian, 2, and Claire, 1, full time. Sheila Foley Murphy, 32, is a nurse practitioner and lives in Hartford, Conn., with her husband, Edward. Patricia Foley Turner, 31, is a certified public accountant and lives in Jamestown with her husband, Quint, and two children Luke, 3, and Caitlin, 20 months.

Foley said she is "delighted and ever so pleased" that her five children are so successful and happy.

"We had our rough spots, as every family does," she said. "But we came together and muddled through it and learned from our mistakes. I always said that a mistake is not a mistake if you learn something from it."

One day at a time

From the day she was informed that her husband had been shot down, Foley said, she lived each day one at a time.

"It was hard for me, and on the children, but we went ahead, always thinking and hoping and praying that one day we would get word, or better yet that Bren would come home."

Each night the children would include their father in prayers. And the process of growing up in the Foley family was fully documented.

"I have barrels of photos," Foley said. "We even took pictures of silly things so that when Bren came home, he could catch up on the everyday things that happen in family life. We have photos of the family rec room in shambles, a real mess. It was that way sometimes.

"And I also have photos of the kids peeking through the rails on the banister on Christmas morning. And pictures of each kid on the first day of school."

Foley said it was difficult at times being a single parent. "The children really didn't know what they missed, not having their father," she said. "Now that they are having children of their own, they realize the importance of what two parents can give."

When her children were growing up, Foley taught school part time, and became active on behalf of relatives of those missing or unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.

"When my mother became active in the POW-MIA issue, we were proud of her," said Kevin, who was 13 months old when the family was notified his father was missing. "But I can tell you that she never let it interfere in family life. She always seemed to put our needs ahead of everything."

The mother said it has been difficult over the last 27 years, not knowing what news each day would bring. "There was always a shadow over us. The not-knowing is what kills you. It would be the greatest gift of all, if one day we could know, once and for all, where Brendon is, and what happened."


By Dale Huffman

Published Oct. 2, 2000

Some weeks ago, we shared the story of a Dayton family who sit down to dinner each Sunday as a unit. They turn off the television set, and do not answer the telephone until dinner is over.

The story triggered a good deal of response, like the call from Betty Foley who lives in Huber Heights.

Foley successfully raised five children by herself when her husband, Lt. Col. Brendan P. Foley, an Air Force pilot, disappeared in action while fighting in the Vietnam war in 1967. He is still missing.

"When the kids became teen-agers I had a second phone line put in," Foley said. "I actually did it for my own sanity, and so I could have use of a telephone once in the while."

Her children, she said, used their phone a lot. "But I had a rule. And there was never an exception. Every evening during our dinner together, the phone was to go unanswered."

Laughing, she said, "There was much grief each evening when the phone would ring and ring while we were at the table. I was probably considered the meanest mom in the Miami Valley. But when there were words about it, I would smile and say . . .'and God loves you, too.' "

Today, Betty Foley says, there is an interesting postscript to her story.

"I have some satisfaction in knowing that some of my kids do not accept phone calls during the dinner hour at their homes. They enjoy the family dinner together without interruption."

She added, "Isn't life grand?"

The Dayton Daily News archives contributed to this report. Contact this reporter at will.garbe@coxinc.com.

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