Legal Guardians

May 10 2005 | by

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TARYN BETTENHAUSEN is a typical teenager on an atypical search for God. Her life, and her perspective on religion changed in an instant five years ago, with the sudden death of her parents. She's been struggling ever since. But she's also been the recipient of love and support from unexpected places: the love of Jesus - in the form of a married couple who came to her aid.

Famous name

Last month, when Taryn got her high school diploma from a Catholic school in Indianapolis, Indiana, many in the crowd recognized her last name. The name Bettenhausen is synonymous with auto racing in Indianapolis, home of the Indy 500. Her father was one of three racing brothers, and a son of two-time US Auto Club national champion Melvin Tony Bettenhausen, who was killed in practice in 1961.
 On the day of her high school graduation last month, Taryn wore her mother's perfume and a bracelet she treasures, fashioned from seven small diamonds salvaged from another Bettenhausen tragedy, the fiery plane crash that killed her mother and father.
Taryn missed her parents desperately that day. But when she looked out into the audience, she saw a man and a woman who love her like their own flesh and blood. Theirs is a union none of them could have predicted - a story of love and loss, struggle and triumph.
It's been a tough year for Taryn Bettenhausen. This is the year the death of her parents came full circle. They perished in a plane crash on Monday, Valentine's Day, 2000. When the anniversary fell this year on a Monday, Taryn fell apart.
This was a much harder year for me, she says. It hurts to think about my parents, but I think about them every day. Sometimes I just wish I could talk to them.
Taryn is talkative by nature, and friendly, an extrovert who has grown and matured. But the event that has shaped her young adulthood is as fresh as if it had happened yesterday.
 Taryn vividly remembers walking out of her 7th grade classroom after school to find not her mother waiting for her, as expected, but family friend Judy Breeden, with the news her parents plane had crashed. There were no survivors.

The best of friends

 The Bettenhausen's had plenty of friends, and Tom and Jenny Godby were among their closest. The two couples met through a shared interest in racing.
Shortly after Tony Bettenhausen stopped racing Indy cars in 1993, he entered a real-estate business partnership with Tom Godby, who'd built a successful heating and cooling business. The partnership cemented their friendship.
We were both competitive and we'd tease each other, Tom remembers. We were great friends.
Tom and his wife Jenny were vacationing in Key Biscayne, Florida with Tony and Shirley Bettenhausen and several other couples the week preceding the plane crash. Tony was doing double duty at the Championship Auto Racing Teams spring training in Homestead, Florida.
Jenny Godby remembers walking the beach with Shirley, talking about their children. Shirley, the mother of two girls, Bryn, age 18, and Taryn, 13, was lamenting the discipline problems she and Tony were having with their youngest child, with whom they'd been particularly lenient.
She told me that when she got home they were going to have to start grounding Taryn, and becoming more strict, Jenny says.
Jenny, who'd also been through the teenage years with her own daughter, knew the routine.
On Sunday, February 13th, 2000, Tom Godby drove the Bettenhausens and their friends, businessmen Russ Roberts and Larry Rangel, to the airport where Tony had parked his twin engine Baron -BE 58.
Tom helped them load the plane and expressed concern about the icy weather between Florida and Indiana. Tony felt the plane was well equipped and didn't seem concerned.
Tony was a risk taker, Tom says. You're not a race driver without being a risk taker. That airplane was his adrenaline surge once he quit racing.
The weather forced them to land the plane overnight in Tennessee. Shirley called Taryn and reluctantly told her daughter she'd miss seeing her gymnastics meet, but would be home the next day.
On Valentine's Day, as Tony took off in bad weather, ice built up quickly on the wings. He radioed a request to change altitude, and was attempting to climb above the storm when the plane went into a spin. It crashed into a hillside near Lexington, Kentucky and burst into flames, killing everyone on board.

A spiritual directive

The days and months after the death of her parents are a blur for Taryn. She remembers the funeral and a number of gatherings at the homes of family and friends. She doesn't remember being worried about her future, but others were.
There was a lot of discussion among the friends, says Jenny, who ascribes to the it takes a village to raise a child theory.
When that plane crashed it didn't just happen to a little family on the west side of Indianapolis. It happened to the entire racing community. It happened to all the friends and extended family members. Everyone was concerned and involved.
 Bryn, the oldest child at 18, was already enrolled in art school in Chicago, and was living independently.
We all thought, 'What's going to happen with Taryn?' Jenny says. 'Who is going to take care of Taryn?' It was after a lot of reflection, it came down to, 'Who can bring what is wanted and needed?' And I kept thinking, 'That defines us. That can't be.' It was nowhere in the plan.
The Godby's, who each had an adult child from a previous marriage, had been married to each other for just 13 months. At age 53 and 48, respectively, Tom and Jenny were planning an early retirement, with extensive travel and frequent trips to their second home in Florida.
 A few months after the crash, Jenny was walking on the beach when she felt what she calls a spiritual directive regarding Taryn's welfare. I don't know if it was Shirley up there, but I just knew what we were supposed to do.
Tom felt it as well. His hand goes to his heart and his eyes fill with tears as he talks about it.
It was a feeling in the heart - big time, Tom says. Jenny and I both independently and simultaneously came to the conclusion 'It's us'.

A tough job

Tom and Jenny Godby became Taryn's legal guardians, and she moved in with them three months after the accident.
There was a 'honeymoon' period. Taryn, who was accustomed to spending weekends at the racetrack, began blending with the Godby clan through picnics and vacations.But soon, tensions began to emerge.
Tom and I had not raised a child together so it was both a blessing and a challenge, Jenny says. They don't come with instruction books either way, whether you give birth to them or whether they show up on your doorstep.
Taryn, in hindsight, is the first to admit the Godby's had their hands full.
I was a huge brat growing up, Taryn says. It was a tough job bringing in an angry 13 year old, but they did it. When I moved in with Tom and Jenny I had to learn to become less selfish, not so much 'I,' and 'me'. They had discipline in their home. They weren't messing around.
Tom nods in agreement.
I always say that Taryn is Tony in a skirt - grumpy, bull-headed, stubborn - she got all those things from her Dad.
There were daily battles.
Jenny was there every day with Taryn, Tom continues. 'Tuck your blouse in, take this, eat that, carry your books.' I was the 'big picture' guy. When I came in it was like thunder and lightning. I'd take the TV away, and she'd mouth off and I'd say, 'OK you lost it for a week', and she'd mouth off again and I'd say, 'Now you lost it for a month. Give me the cell phone too.'
Jenny concedes there was a necessary adjustment on all sides, but always a foundation of respect that grew quickly into love.
In some cases you had to be adamant, she says. Sometimes it was, 'This is our life and this is the way we do it'. And in other cases it was, 'Ok - tell me how you did this at home.'

New traditions

Jenny Godby had lost her own father when she was 15, and knew first-hand about the hardship: the yearning, the pain, and the need to hang onto traditions.
 The first Christmas after the crash, there were two trees in the Godby home, including one just for Taryn and Bryn, hung with their family's ornaments.
Each year at Christmas, the Godby's try to give the girls a special memento or reminder of their parents. One year it was a collage of their parent's photos and racing pins. Another Christmas, Jenny had gold bracelets fashioned for each daughter from the diamonds of Shirley's tennis bracelet which she was wearing when the plane went down.
Taryn rarely takes the bracelet off, and counts it among her most treasured possessions along with the candle snuffer her father once gave her mother for Christmas.
In time though, there were new traditions as well.
We had traditions with Taryn that were different from what we had with our own kids or she had with her parents. And those we all hold very sacred I think, Jenny says.
On the topic of boys and dating, Tom was able to level with Taryn the way her father would have done it.
I said, 'Oh honey, your Dad and I had many conversations, especially when it came to boys and dating. Your father would have been at the door with a gun. God help the first boy who walked in that door. I guess any boy who treats you with respect is OK with me.'
Taryn, a Protestant, made steady progress at her Catholic high school, making honour roll, making friends, and becoming a cheerleader. But she's struggled with issues of faith. She readily admits she's angry with God.
Grief comes in waves like the ocean, says Kent Millard, pastor at the Methodist church that Tom and Jenny Godby attend. Taryn is a very good kid, but anybody who goes through grief has emotional highs and lows.
Shortly after the plane crash, Taryn reluctantly attended a youth retreat at church. There, much to her surprise, she bonded with several teenagers, some of whom have her closest friends.
She just felt enveloped by this community of kids that really cared for her and listened to her and tried to understand, Millard says. One of them was a teenage boy whose father had just died.
Their counsellor told me that he and Taryn would sit up late at night and talk. There was someone there who could understand. I think it was God's way of saying, 'Taryn, I know you're hurting, and here's someone who can help.'

Turning point

Last October, 3 months after Taryn turned 18 and gained some financial independence, she moved out of the Godby's home, saying she was ready for some space.
She maintains a warm relationship with them, and they stay active in the big decisions in her life. With their encouragement, she is planning to go to college. Tom says she'd make a great lawyer or CEO.
Taryn can see a big picture, which a lot of people can't, Tom says. She's driven, smart, and perceptive. She's got all the tools if she'll pick them up and use them.
Taryn's grades have slipped a little this year and she admits to some emotional backsliding as well.
The 5-year Valentine's Day anniversary of the crash hit her hard.
I feel guilty sometimes for having those days when you think about it, but I can't help it. It's such an important year for me with graduation.
A turning point came this year at her high school senior retreat, which put an emphasis on Jesus.
It was all dark and I was sitting at a round table with my retreat group, and there were candles lit, Taryn recounts. I was at the head of the table and all the kids were reading these really touching letters from their parents. It was hard hearing, 'I'm going to see you graduate this year' and all that stuff, because I don't have that. I was the last one to go in my group. I got scared for a moment because I had moved out of Tom and Jenny's house and I thought, 'What if Tom and Jenny didn't write me letters?'
But they had written her letters, and as Taryn read them out loud, the tears fell.
I love Tom and Jenny, Taryn says. I always will. I know they're always here for me. They've been in my life since before my parents died, and after my parents died, and still to come.
The Godby's were equally touched by the letters Taryn wrote back to them.
Her statement was, 'Once again, you came through,' Jenny says with a smile.
If you only get that - that there are people who will always come through - well, that was for me all I needed to hear.
I think, in retrospect we did the best that we could. You always want a do over. But then, if we had had a do over we wouldn't have said goodbye to our friends that day. We would have said 'Don't fly.'
 Now, 5 years after they put their retirement on hold, the Godby's are empty nesters once again.
I think we've learned we're not ready to retire, Tom says with a laugh. He says Taryn has helped him recommit to fun and family.
I've also learned that every single day you can make a difference in someone's life, Tom says.
We were blessed to have Taryn in ours, Jenny adds. It's been said through the ages a million different ways - when you give you always receive. And we've gotten back so much more than we've given.
 As for Taryn's faith journey, she says she vacillates between feelings of anger at God, and occasional moments of comfort.
There will be times when she feels God's presence, and times when she doesn't, like all of us, Reverend Kent Millard says.
It's like the anthem, 'I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when I don't feel it, and I believe in God, even when I can't see Him. God has plans for her, if she'll listen.

Updated on October 06 2016