Couple remember 37 years of riding together in parades

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A familiar sight: Happy and Dorothy Bettenhausen, married for 69 years, have ridden in parades in the Southland for Phillips Chevrolet for 37 years. | Supplied photo

If you go ...

What: Fall Festival Parade

When: Sept. 1, the parade steps off at 1 p.m.

Where: The parade begins at the Borg Warner parking lot at Ash and Nebraska streets, then travels on Pacific, Oak, Utah, Ash and Nebraska before returning to the parking lot via Locust Street.

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If you look for Norman Bettenhausen in this year’s Fall Festival Parade, chances are not many people will know how to find him. Ask for “Happy,” and they’ll know right where he is.

Bettenhausen, who was given the nickname by an uncle, has been known as Happy for nearly all his 88 years to everyone from customers at Phillips Chevrolet to his wife, Dorothy, with whom he recently celebrated 69 years of marriage. It’s an apt moniker for a cheerful man who greets everyone with a smile.

The couple — related distantly to the owners of Bettenhausen Automotive in Tinley Park — has represented Phillips Chevrolet in local parades for the past 37 years. The pair rides together in parades in New Lenox, Mokena, Frankfort and Manhattan, waving to the crowd and promoting the dealership where Bettenhausen has worked since 1976. This Labor Day weekend, he will appear in his 129th and 130th parades, the first in Frankfort (Frankfort Fall Festival Parade, Sept. 1) and the second in Manhattan (Manhattan Chamber of Commerce Labor Day Parade, Sept. 2).

The couple has lived in Manteno since 1989, but the childhood sweethearts are both originally from Frankfort. For several years, they operated Happy’s Body Shop in Tinley Park, but their hearts remain in Frankfort.

Although both describe their participation in parades as something they’ve simply always done, they look forward to doing them every year.

“It’s a feeling you can’t imagine with thousands of people greeting you as you’re greeting them,” he said.

For several years, Bettenhausen, an accordionist, played live music on parade floats with his polka band. Nowadays, he drives a car and plays the music on a CD. Earlier this year, he didn’t take music with him and he got grief about it from parade regulars.

Indeed, Bettenhausen’s fans seem to know him well. Dorothy had to miss a few parades last year due to health issues, but when her husband considered not participating, she insisted he go.

“I said, ‘You can’t back out. You’ve done every one,’” she said.

Her absence did not go unnoticed.

“‘Where’s Dorothy?’ That’s all I heard. ‘Where’s Dorothy?’” he said.

Other Happy places

He performs in other venues as well. He’s played many festivals over the years and occasionally visits nursing homes to entertain the residents. In 1976, Happy’s Polka Band (which included his son Leroy on banjo) performed for President Gerald Ford when he visited Joliet.

“My music is why he lost the election,” Bettenhausen joked.

Bettenhausen owns a few accordions, including one he keeps at the dealership and will play upon request. And when he doesn’t have an accordion, he still has his music with him. Once after a surgery, as he was being wheeled to the recovery room, he started humming. The doctor asked his wife what the song was, and as she listened, she started laughing and told him: it was “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”

Healthy and vital

Bettenhausen has slowed down a bit. Phillips’ top salesman for 12 years in the 1970s and 80s, he still sells a few cars here and there but mostly spends his days working on the dealership’s weekly newsletter, making coffee and tending to the flowers outside. He says he’s proud he and his wife are both healthy and vital, and he wants to stay that way.

“I am a firm believer of people in their 80s and 90s still working,” he said. “I’ve always got something to do.”

However, Bettenhausen has slowed down a bit. Playing with his polka band at hours-long outdoor festivals has become tougher in recent years.

“It’s three hours, and you feel it for three days. You’ve got to admit defeat just a little,” he said, adding quickly, “but not much.”