Lessons learned from some elders 
offer insight on how to live our lives

Many threads weave the fabric of a community. Some are made of bricks and mortar. Others comprise the amenities and activities that help establish the context of our lives. They include our surroundings, the physical settings that give us both pleasure and sustenance, which preceded our time here and will remain when we depart.

Then there are the people. All, in their own way, give breadth and depth and character to a place and provide the texture and color that make each community just a little bit different than the next.

We’ve lost a few of those people in the past couple of months. The latest, weekend before last, was Wilda Alberta Senter Abell, more commonly known as Billee. Others who’ve left us behind most recently include Bob Denning and Chris Jouflas.

Most 94-year-olds would be perfectly content to ride their rocking chair into the sunset. That wasn’t Billee, who suffered a massive stroke Sunday morning of last week while getting ready for her regular stint volunteering at the Visitor’s Center out on Horizon Drive. 

For 67 of her 94 years, BIllee Abell was a big part of my own life. Billee and Joe Abell and Jake and Helen Spehar shared an address in upstairs and downstairs apartments near Eighth and Main Street when my oldest friend, Paul, and I were born.

Though Paul was an only child, for decades Billee’s life was defined by her “other kids,” the hundreds of Grand Valley children who attended her kindergarten back before that early childhood activity became common in public schools.

One of the work tables from the classroom Joe and Paul built on to their home was Billee’s dining table when she died. Another one may still be at Wingate Elementary, where Bonnie left it when she departed to take on other school-district duties.

If you had any connection to party politics, you knew Billee as a devoted and active Democrat, but one whose best friends might be Republicans. If you frequented community events, such as concerts and plays, you remember her voice and laughter, most often a few decibels above any others.

As I’ve thought about the losses of Billee, Chris and Bob over the last little while, one thing seems to be the common denominator in the threads they each wove into the fabric of our community.

The word that comes to mind is joy —  the pure, unadulterated happiness they each exuded as they lived their lives.

My recollection of Bob Denning is not his business acumen, not the lumber company at Fifth Street and North Avenue, not the international consulting on the hardware business, not even the countless contributions to many of the cultural organizations that enhance our lives.

It’s the combination of intensity and joy that was so evident when you saw him playing with the fellow members of his classical music group at community events. 

I appreciate Chris’ many civic contributions, including his willingness to cooperate in making so much of what was family property perpetually available for public enjoyment out near Rabbit Valley. 

What I’ll remember longer is his ability to “herd the cats” for the annual Greek Festival at his beloved church, the boundless optimism he demonstrated when I’d see him with Connie at community gatherings, the pride in his family and heritage.

I’ve been privy to some remembrances by others that say much the same about Billee. Words such as “irreverent” and “funny” and “full of life” are included. “One of a kind” and “an example of how to live your life to the fullest” are other takeaways from her time with us.

There’s a lesson in the lives of Billee Abell, Chris Jouflas and Bob Denning — that our glasses are most often half full rather than partially empty. That taking some time to enjoy life, and spreading that joy in our own individual ways, is what adds the brightest colors, the highlights to the textures of our families and communities. Otherwise, we might endure mostly the bland sameness, the drab grays and browns that accompany perspectives that too often, lately, seem to see our glasses as half empty.

Jim Spehar counts himself among those who need to take time to remember the lessons from the lives of our community’s elders. Your thoughts are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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