Betty LaSpina wasn’t a shy woman. In fact, when she met Frank Sinatra for the first time, she told “Ol’ Blue Eyes” he was beautiful.
“I know exactly what she said,” Janis Scholler recalled of her aunt’s encounter with Sinatra in 1978. “(Frank) said the portrait was beautiful, and she said, ‘So are you.’”
LaSpina, who had been commissioned to make an oil painting of Sinatra for the Frank Sinatra wing of what is now AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus, died March 30. The Absecon resident was 81 years old.
LaSpina had a long battle with cancer, but she didn’t let that slow her down, Scholler said.
“She was a very unique person. My aunt lived her life the way she wanted to live it,” Scholler said. “I don’t know how to say that any other way. She had a mind of her own.”
LaSpina spent most of her career working as Atlantic City clerk, a job she held from 1949 to 1976. During that time, LaSpina honed her painting skills in her home studio in Absecon.
LaSpina’s first hobby was sewing, and she made clothing for her nieces. She didn’t pick up painting until later, Scholler said.
“After my sister and I got older, she didn’t sew as much anymore,” Scholler said, adding that LaSpina’s mother was a seamstress and that is likely how her aunt learned to sew. “I think that’s where the art came in.”
LaSpina, who did not have children of her own, opened the Riggs School of Art in 1972. Riggs was LaSpina’s maiden name.
She taught small classes of as many as 10 people until the time of her death, Scholler said.
Scholler — who took art classes from her aunt — said LaSpina was a “really good teacher” and was very talented.
She was not exactly sure how her aunt got into painting, but LaSpina’s work has been on display throughout Atlantic City, as she did oil paintings of several city officials.
“I think it was a calming force,” Scholler said. “You can sit there and you can paint and you can just lose yourself in that.”
Scholler said that before LaSpina’s death, her aunt began a painting based on a photo of her husband in his World War II uniform. LaSpina sketched the image onto the canvas and began applying paint.
“She did lay in the face, part of it,” she said.
As LaSpina was unable to finish the painting, she asked Scholler to complete the work, Scholler said.
“I just know she was so proud of her paintings and so appreciative when someone loved it like she did,” said Peggy Souders, of Vineland.
Souders said LaSpina was a caring person who gave a personal touch to every painting.
“She would take a picture and she would construct a hand-done oil painting of it,” she said, adding that LaSpina made a painting of a baby in a highchair as Souders prepared to become a first-time grandmother. “She wanted to personalize what she did.”
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