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Betty Joe Thornhill Iles

Dec. 31, 1934 – Sept. 29, 2020

NATCHEZ — Betty Joe Thornhill Iles passed away peacefully after an extended illness on Tuesday, September 29. There will be a private graveside service for family this weekend, but we will schedule a memorial event open to all friends at a later time. Longtime family friend Judge George Ward will officiate at the graveside. In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.

Betty Iles was born to Joe and Codie Thornhill on a small family farm in Franklin Parish, Louisiana, on December 31, 1934. The Thornhill farm had no electricity until Betty was fourteen, and like her brother and sisters, she worked hard doing everything from basic chores to picking cotton until she left home. To prepare for college, Betty read one hundred library books recommended by one of her teachers. She entered Northwestern State College in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in 1953, and after three years graduated as Valedictorian of her class. While at Northwestern, Betty met her future husband, Jerry Wayne Iles. The couple married in 1956 and settled in New Orleans while Jerry attended medical school at LSU. They lived in the French Quarter, and Betty rode the ferry every day to teach children across the river in Algiers.

After Dr. Iles graduated medical school, he entered the U.S. Army, and he and Betty moved to Germany to begin his tour of duty. Betty loved Europe, and they traveled whenever they could to pursue their mutual interests in history and art. Betty delivered her first son, Mark Gregory, in Stuttgart in 1960, and her second, Michael Geoffrey, in Frankfurt in 1961. The family remained in Germany until 1962, then returned to America by ship during the Cuban missile crisis. After time spent at several U.S. army bases, the couple settled in Natchez, Mississippi, during the blizzard of 1963.

While Dr. Iles began his medical practice, Betty taught English and served as librarian at Natchez High School. In the early 1970s, she moved to Trinity Episcopal School, where she filled the same roles. During these years Betty was a member of the Junior Auxiliary, where she served as president, and also of the Natchez Garden Club. Blessed with natural artistic talent, Betty won many blue and tricolored ribbons at local, state, and regional flower shows.

In 1977, Betty opened Iles and Iles of Frames on Franklin Street with her sister-in-law, Christie Iles Cassel. Then in 1981, she moved to 403 Main Street and opened Capricorn Gallery with her sister, Doris Kemp. There she used her artistic ability and personal charisma to run a thriving gallery until her first four grandchildren were born, at which time she closed the gallery and became their primary caregiver during the days.

Throughout these years, Betty periodically worked in her husband’s medical practice, and also for her son Greg as bookkeeper and personal assistant. She seemed to have boundless energy, with age showing very little on her. Family meant everything to Betty, and she was the glue that held the extended clan together. She helped everyone in need who crossed her path, whether related to them or not, doing so quietly and without looking for thanks. Above all, she was a devoted wife to her husband of fifty-four years. She supported him in all endeavors, and cared for him during years of extended illness as he continued to practice medicine until his death in 2010. With her husband’s help, Betty also cared selflessly for both her parents and in-laws during long illnesses at the end of their lives.

Betty Iles was an archetypal example of the Southern woman that screenwriter Robert Harling christened a “steel magnolia.” Dr. Iles always said that his wife was far smarter than he was, and he meant it. Betty could have excelled at any profession she chose, yet she lived a quiet life caring for her family and running a successful business based on perfectionism, a rigorous work ethic, and personal charm. One of her happiest moments came when a prominent Natchezian was asked in a newspaper interview to define “class,” and he replied, “When I hear the word `class,’ I think of Betty Iles.” Betty was a true lady, never prideful, and she never forgot the cotton fields where she was born and reared. She will be mourned by many whose lives she touched in countless ways, always when and where help was most needed. A quiet word of encouragement. A fierce hug. A wad of money stuffed into an empty pocket. A timely quote from an eighteenth-century poem. These were the tools of her life, and she used them well. More than a few people born in Natchez think of Betty as a second mother.

Betty was preceded in death by her parents, Joseph Francis Thornhill and Codie Sophronia Viola Thornhill, by her brother John Edward Thornhill, and by her sister Doris Jean Kemp.

She is survived by her two sons, Greg and his wife Caroline, and Geoff and wife Betsy; by five grandchildren, Mary Catherine Huntsberry and husband Chip, Michael Iles, Madeline Iles, Mark Iles, and Elliot Iles; and by her sister Irma Louise Thornhill McGraw; as well as by numerous brothers and sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews and loved ones.

The family wishes to express its thanks to Dr. Jack Rodriguez, Dr. Edward Daly, Dr. Randy Tillman, Dr. Kellen Jex, and Dr. Kenneth Stubbs. We also give our warm thanks to Keshia Mitchell, Ebony Mitchell, and Ira Baker for their conscientious care at the end of Betty’s life.

Pallbearers for the private service will be Michael Iles, Mark Iles, Marty Kemp, Colin Kemp, Jimmy Thornhill, and Chip Huntsberry.

Online condolences may be sent to the family at lairdfh.com.