Niagara Gazette

September 14, 2013

LETTERS FROM THE ISLAND: Remembering the Island's Billie Jean

By Doug and Polly Smith
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Dear Mainland Alumni — Billie Jean Harper. If that doesn’t sound like country, we don’t know Ramblin’ Lou. And prepared to leave her viewing last week, having shaken every familiar hand and hugged every known shoulder, a lad of maybe 14 seized Polly’s arm.

“Thank you for coming,” he said at the doorway, growing into adulthood before our very eyes, a total stranger to us up to this moment, bestowing his blessing on us for having come to pay tribute to his grandmother. We didn’t catch his name, but in welcoming us newcomers he evoked Billie Jean Harper herself.

Hall monitor, she was. Have you EVER heard anything nice said about a high school hall monitor? Aren’t they the butts of jokes from Archie Andrews to Bart Simpson? And yet Billie Jean Harper, who countenanced no sass, was as beloved at Grand Island High as any star athlete or academic over-achiever. She merited a full four minutes on Channel 2 News, and Doug can tell you from experience that not even captains of industry get four minutes on a local newscast when there’s no “supporting video” as they call it.

(Doug once worked with a guy who declined to air a story about the collapse of the Thruway near Utica: “Who cares about some downstate rural road when we’ve got no pictures?”)

Sorry for the digression. Doug’s still working off some grudges. Not so, evidently, for Billie Jean Harper, ambassador without portfolio to 34 years of student bodies. Slight of build, uplifting of voice, she was as likely to say how nice you looked as to hurry you off to class. We heard from people all over the country, and so did Mary Friona, who fashioned that marvelous piece for Ch. 2, surely evoking a tear from even folks who couldn’t find Grand Island on Mapquest.

We would see her at Tops and she would ask after our daughter Holly, and then Holly’s children. That was three decades ago. No sparrow fell too far away for Billie Jean Harper’s concern.

It helps to know where she came from, Greenville, S.C., 1935, the time of the setting of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” closer then to the Civil War than to today. Her arrival did not even merit a birth certificate; as she prepared to retire here, South Carolina bestirred itself to send her a “substitute” certificate, tucked into the folds of her final resting place.

Billie Jean and her husband, who preceded her, raised a breathtaking family whose certificates could paper the hall. Son Arthur, for one example, has charge of banquets at the Country Club of Buffalo. That’s a long way from Greenville.

But beyond this was Billie Jean’s “other family,” Islanders by the thousands who never forgot. And that’s our Ode to Billie Jean.

Come visit. We’ll sit a spell.

E-mail Doug and Polly Smith at