Archive for Sunday, February 11, 2001

Birthday Lady’ serves town and many more

February 11, 2001


— Every morning, seven days a week, 365 days a year, rain, sleet, snow or blazing heat, Dianne Heinen pulls up in front of the Foley Service gas station in her big white Cadillac.

She grabs a bottle of white shoe polish, a plastic bag filled with half-sheets of yellow legal paper and a bucket filled with either water or windshield washer fluid, depending on the season. Then she heads for the window facing out onto Valley Falls' main drag.

She is the "Birthday Lady," and she's making her self-appointed rounds.

If you have a birthday and live in Valley Falls (or if you were born and raised in this town northeast of Topeka and now live in Timbuktu), your name goes up on the plate glass windows once a year.

"This is my fourth year doing this," says Heinen, bundled in a bright red coat to ward off the morning chill as she wipes off the names of yesterday's four birthday celebrants and carefully paints on today's half-dozen.

The tradition of the Valley Falls birthday window goes back 20 years, when Dorothy Billings wrote "Happy Birthday" to one of her friends, Patty Brown, on the window of the Billingses' gas station.

"It started as a practical joke, just for kicks and giggles," said Heinen, who asked to take over the job from Billings when she retired from the Happy Birthday window business after 16 dedicated years. Foley Service offered its windows.

Heinen isn't sure why she took on the task, since she's the kind of person who prefers to lounge around in her jammies on weekends, coming into town later to pick up a newspaper or attend church with her husband, Paul. They work together at the family's accounting service.

She's only missed four days, when she "got the dying-kind-of-flu, where I just couldn't even twitch." Her husband did the birthdays those days.

She sure doesn't do it for the pay, since there is none. And she even buys her own heavy-duty white shoe polish, at $4 a bottle. The discount store stuff is too runny, she says.

People look forward to seeing their names posted in Valley Falls, population 1,200. "I'd like to have it up there every month," joked Roy Allen, who said his friends always buy him a drink on his birthday, which falls on Halloween.

"It's really fun to go by and see whose birthday it is. It brings the community closer together," said Cathy Lovell, who has lived in Valley Falls just over four years. She was celebrating her 43rd birthday on this particular day.

Heinen doesn't post ages with the birthdays, but word apparently got out even before longtime resident Judy Rider's name went up on the gas station window recently. "Today is the big one: Five-O," she said. Friends had thrown a party complete with a black coffin for her.

"But I think it's a cute little community tradition," she said.

Keeping the tradition going in her hometown is the payoff for Dianne Heinen. "We've lost a lot of businesses here. ... Our main street kind of looks like somebody who's had some teeth pulled."

But the population of Valley Falls has remained remarkably consistent over the years, and even though many residents commute to jobs in nearby Topeka, they always come home each day.

And as long as there's a clean plate glass window downtown, they'll be able to check up on who's another year older every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, thanks to the Birthday Lady.

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