Christmas rum balls were among many things we loved about Betsy –

31January 2021

Every year around Christmas, Press Herald employees looked forward to longtime copy editor and page designer Betsy Gattis bringing in her famous rum balls to share with her co-workers. Photo by Susan Axelrod

In the Before Times, back when we went to the office to work every day, I kept a secret, informal tally of my colleagues’ food choices. (Don’t spread this around.) I knew whose packed lunches and dinners I desired and whose office baked goods I coveted, among them the lunches of  Marla Pastrana in paper makeup, news reporter Gillian Graham and former illustrator Pete Gorski, and the spectacular, towering layer cakes of designer Sally Tyrrell.

But Betsy Gattis’s legendary rum balls were in a category of their own.

True, we got them just once a year, at Christmastime, but we looked forward to their annual appearance at the office the other 364 days. It wasn’t Christmas without those rum balls. Betsy worked at the Portland Press Herald as a copy editor for 37 years before retiring in 2018. Her small and constant kindnesses, her humility, her steady good humor in a stressful workplace, her willingness to tackle any job no matter how thankless – and her meticulousness in carrying it out — were also legendary. Two weeks ago, Betsy and Geoff Gattis, her husband of 42 years, died instantly when their car was rear-ended and crushed while they were stopped in traffic on the Maine Turnpike.

How to make sense of this sudden, shattering loss?

We started by talking about the rum balls.

“Have you ever had them?” illustrator Michael Fisher asked me (for the record, yes, oh yes!) when I reached out to him to talk about Betsy’s rum balls and ask if he had the recipe. “They are incredibly tasty, and you could definitely get drunk on them,” he said. “I would take off most Christmas weeks, so I’d miss them, but she’d always put a bunch aside me for in the fridge, because I would go on and on and on about them. Like the day after Christmas, I would go up to her and ask if she had made them again yet. And I’d do that every single week until the next Christmas. I think it got to the point where I was annoying. She didn’t get annoyed, but you could tell I was a pain in the ass. When she retired, I said, ‘You are still going to make rum balls each year, right?’ ”

The rum balls – “They were very rummy,” remembered features reporter Ray Routhier. “You could smell them across the room” – also had magical powers. And it wasn’t just because we ate them at Christmas that they spread peace on Earth.

“I was in the newsroom and we had published something, I forgot what it was, and it just didn’t meet our standards, and I was having a hissy fit and I was giving (the copy desk) some hell,” recalled Executive Editor Cliff Schechtman. “In the middle of it, and I’m all agitated, (Betsy) walks over to me with a plate of rum balls and said” — here Cliff changed his brusque, newsroom-leader voice to sweet and nice as those cookies — ” ‘Would you like a rum ball?’ and everybody just cracked up, and it really defused the tension.”

Betsy Gattis Carl D. Walsh

In an email, assistant opinion editor Sarah Collins may have summed up best what we loved and miss, and will always miss, about Betsy and her rum balls:

“The traditional making and distribution of the beloved rum balls was a ritual that demonstrated several of the ways in which Betsy Gattis (in her typically low-profile way) was so special … Sometime after Thanksgiving, people who couldn’t remember to turn in their timesheets or health insurance forms (yo!) *always* remembered to ask, ‘Hey! Has Betsy brought in the rum balls yet?’ She always made sure to set aside some of these confections for the night staff. This is a huge deal. When you work at night – as I did for 13 years – you’re used to feeling overlooked. I felt cared for, knowing there would be enough to go around.”

“I keep thinking of reasons that I miss Betsy Gattis,” Sarah ended her note. “I don’t expect that I’ll run out any time soon.”

At funerals in Thailand, mourners often receive a small token of the deceased in the form of a funeral book, which typically includes many of that person’s favorite recipes. The idea is, in part, to celebrate the many good memories so often wrapped up in meals.

The sentiment is as true in Maine as in Thailand, and in meals as in rum balls.

Many of Betsy’s colleagues write on daily deadline for a living. We are accustomed to churning out words. Words fail. Maybe we’ll turn to the kitchen. Making and eating a batch of beloved Betsy’s beloved cookies – measuring, grinding, chopping, mixing, rolling, rolling, partaking, remembering – we will hope that Betsy’s rum balls can offer those of us who loved her the smallest, sweetest bite of comfort.

Betsy’s Rum Balls

This is Betsy’s recipe in her own words, as given to me by two Press Herald staffers with whom she shared it. She called these no-bake rum balls Bailey’s Rum Balls, because she inherited the recipe from Dennis Bailey, who worked at the paper for seven years in the 1980s and became a friend of the Gattises. He now lives in Washington, D.C. Bailey doesn’t remember where he got the recipe, which he used to make each year for the Press Herald office come Christmas. When he moved on, he gave Betsy the recipe, he said, “and she carried on the tradition” for almost 30 years. To us, they will always be Betsy’s Rum Balls, so that’s what we’ve called them here. “I think this makes a couple of dozen. I usually double it,” she wrote.

1 (12-ounce) package Vanilla Wafers
2 cups powdered sugar
2 cups chopped walnuts
1 cup cocoa
4 tablespoons Karo syrup
1 cup rum (more or less)
½ cup flour (more or less)

Grind up the wafers and nuts (I use an old food processor). Mix with the rest of the ingredients.

Roll into balls. Add flour if the mixture is too wet and sticks to your fingers (which happens if you go with more rather than less rum). Roll the balls in powdered sugar.

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