(PLATE 1, above)”That’s me and old Mickey. He was about 15 when I moved to Neosho and I took him with me and kept him in the garage there. Came in one night and old Mickey wasn’t in there. I spent several days hunting for him but I never found him. Went off and died I guess.”
by Gideon Pellegrino
The December air greeted me as I stepped out of the car. As I walked towards the door, a sight of a candle-light service could be seen through the windows of the little white church. It was about five years ago on the Sunday before Christmas that I met him.
He was sitting in a chair at the front of the church by a manger display, reading the Christmas story aloud. His figure was tall and slim and he was wearing a button-up shirt, blue jeans, and farm boots. I have never seen him wear anything different. I sat down and listened… the sound of his kind voice hummed in my ears, and the sight of the sweet twinkle in his dark-brown eyes made my heart happy.
To anyone reading, this is only a glimpse of the life of a man I have come to know and love. To any one reading…. I introduce to you, Don Bilyeu.
I have known Don for a while now so sitting down with him for an interview was more like sitting down for just a regular Sunday afternoon chat. I pulled out a chair and got my stuff ready as he washed his hands (he’d just come in from choring). Don’s wife, Shirley, got me a glass of water and made some coffee as I petted their cat.
Their house is the cozy type. It’s the kind of house that you walk in and instantly feel at home. There are pictures of family members young and old on the walls and on the fireplace mantle. My favorite — a black-and-white photograph of the big oak tree in their front yard — is above the couch.
West of the house is a big barn with horses and cows. I look out the dining room window while Don pours himself a cup of coffee. There is a small farm pond I had never noticed before.
Don sits down with a smile and a chuckle and says, “Now… Would you like me to tell you the truth?”
“Yes, that would be nice!” I laugh. And so then, the truth is where Don’s story begins.
It all started on Bull Creek, in Taney County Missouri, where he grew up. Don’s parents, Ralph and Lola Bilyeu, had a boy before Don, named Loren, when they were in their early 20s.
Loren died from dysentery when he was around two years and is buried in Cupp’s Cemetery in Taney County, Missouri. The couple didn’t have another child until they were much older. Don was born in 1938 and grew up a country boy, playing and fishing in Bull Creek and helping his parents farm.
“I’ll never forget when I was a boy,” he chuckles, “Me and my cousin had rode our horses down Bull Creek and there was a drill well there but back then it wasn’t nothing but 30-40 foot deep but it was still a good well. And there was a little ole rope and a can to dip water out with and we decided to stop and get us a drink.
“We drank it and one of us happened to notice some hair in that cup and we thought… ehhhh that’s not good. But we had already drank it you know? Well he had on a belt with a shiny buckle on it and the sun was shining bright so he took that belt off and used the reflection to where he could shine that down in that well and there was a dead ‘possum floating on top of the water. The water tasted just fine to us and you know that possum was on the top of the water so we had to of just dipped right off the top of it but neither one of us got sick!”
Recovering from the ‘possum story, I ask, “Can you tell me a little bit more about your parents?”
“Well my dad died when I was 14 or 15. He had a stroke. He was a big ole robust fella. We’d eat old butchered hogs and my dad and I didn’t like fat meat and they’d feed the hogs till they were just so fat they could hardly walk. And my mother, she loved fat meat. She’d give me and dad the leaner pieces and she’d take the piece that had more fat on it. And we’d cut the fat that was on ours off and she’d reach over there and take her fork and get that fat meat that we had rejected and eat it.
“My dad was 56 when he had his first stroke but he was pretty much bedfast from then on and then he had one when he was 59 that killed him. My mother lived to be 89 and she ate just like that till she died. So I guess it’s not always what you eat.”
When Don’s father died it was a year of a big drought across the Ozarks.
“It was terrible. You couldn’t grow nothing. Cattle prices just hit bottom… everything did. I mean everything and you would think it would come up, but it didn’t. Eggs weren’t worth nothing. Hogs weren’t worth nothing, Everything wasn’t worth nothing. My dad used to say, ‘You’d send a calf to town to sell and then you’d have to send a cow to pay the haul bill.’”
“It was bad and that’s when I had to take over the farm — and you talk about a life-changing experience. My mother helped me but that was still kinda hard for me to get used to. Doing everything and being a growing boy, we about starved to death. We didn’t actually starve but there definitely wasn’t a decent amount of food to eat.”
There was a little country store called Chestnut Ridge General Store nearby. When Ralph had his first stroke, Don and Lola sold all their cows in an attempt to pay for the hospital bills. When they would go to the store to get food or clothes, the store owner would give it to them and never said a word or turned them down. The country store continued to help the sudden family of two when Don’s father died.
That year Don got a job at Emerson’s Canning Factory in Reeds Spring. It was a tomato canning factory.
There, amid the heat and steam, Don recalls how a number of women would stand around a conveyor belt, peeling tomatoes and using what was called a “tomato spoon” to core the produce.
Each woman had a bucket and each bucket had a number on it. After the women peeled the tomatoes, they would put the fruit in their bucket and it would come around on the conveyer belt until it got to Don.
Then Don would weigh the bucket and there was a lady sitting there and he would tell her what all the buckets weighed. The woman were payed by the pound of tomatoes peeled during the day.
“The funny thing was, the women, instead of scattering the buckets out they would send them around all at once and every now and then, I would miss one. And there was one woman who I guess I had missed her bucket a few times.
“She jumped over that conveyor belt and came at me waving that core spoon and she picked me plum up — my feet off the ground — stuck that right there on my throat!
“And she said, ‘If my bucket comes around one more time, I’m coming around and cutting your damn head off!’ And so I said, ‘So… uh… tell me… what’s your number?’ And there was a young fella, a boy about my age that would sit by me and empty the tomatoes into a canner. Anyways, he was a red-headed fella.
“There was no telling what would get into those cans because the steam was so hot and there were no fans or air conditioning and his face would just be as red as fire all day long and sweat would just pour off of him.
“But anyways, when she said that he just kinda sneered at her and she nailed him too and said, ‘I’ll take you out too.’ And I looked at him and it just looked like one of those red thermometers going down. The color left him. He was as white as a sheet.”
The year before Don graduated high school he went to work on a boat dock in Rockaway Beach.
“I graduated in 1957. I had three really good buddies. From the time we were kids we were all ole cronies. Now I’m the only crony left.”
“Branson was just a little ole town and so was Forsyth but Rockaway Beach was the place to go. I mean, it was the party place. Anything went. Anything went at Rockaway. So much that me and my buddy David went to Wichita.. wound up living on the streets for awhile until we got to where we got real affluent. And that’s when I came back and went to [work at] Shepherd of the Hills. I still remember my first line.”
Don sits up really straight in his seat and then lets out a big long, “Howwwwdyyyy!” He then looks across the table as if talking to one of the characters in the play. “H’it’s sure’ dry. Ah don’t think h’it’s ever gonna rain.”
He settles back into his seat and I hear Shirley putting away pots and pans in the kitchen. I look down at my notes and already knowing what I want to ask next.
“How did you and Shirley meet and what year was it?”
After sitting there for a moment, Don yells to Shirley in the kitchen. “Shirley, what year did I come to your house first?”
“1960,” she hollers back.
“1960,” he repeats with a smile.
“And how did you guys meet?” I ask again.
“Well… me an—”
“No, no, no,” Shirley says from the kitchen. “It was ’59. Because you moved home in ’60”
“Oh, then it was ’59. It was in the summer time.. I think…” Don is stroking his mustache thoughtfully.
“It was May,” Shirley answers.
“Yeah, yeah, in May,” Don says with a sweet smile. He sits there with that smile on his face and then continues, “The spring of ’59. This coworker of mine, well, he was my cousin and we worked together. He was dating Shirley’s little sister. He and I had been driving around and stuff and I’ve always thought it was a set up.
“He said to me, ‘You know, I gotta come back here and pick Lena up. So let’s just go pick her up now and save me a trip.’
“Well we did… and there Shirley was. I hit her up for a date, couldn’t persuade her to go, but after awhile, she finally agreed just to shut me up I guess. Then time went on and she wouldn’t go out with me anymore for quite awhile and I just kept nagging on her.”
“Shirley, how long did that go on?”
She laughs and answers, “Probably a month or so, I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either,” he chuckles, “Three or four months maybe. But anyways, I finally wore her down and she went out with me. And I knew right off the bat that she was the woman for me.”
At that moment I let out a big girly sigh. “Yeah,” he says, “I knew right off the bat… she was gonna be.. she was the woman for me. But it went on about two or three years before we finally married.”
They got married in June of 1962 and had two little girls. Now they have four grandkids and seven great-grandchildren with the eighth on the way.
And so I’ll say once again, to anyone reading… this is Don Bilyeu. This Sunday morning — in the same little white church I met him in, in the second to last pew — I will see Don Bilyeu.
Always grateful. Always kind. And one of the sweetest souls you will ever meet. I ask one last question before the interview draws to a close. “If you could give any advice about life, what would it be?”
A brief pause. And then Don says quietly, “Just live everyday to its fullest. Don’t wait… Don’t wait. Live everyday to its fullest and be a friend and you’ll have friends. Treat everybody like you would want them to treat you. You know? The golden rule. If I could do my life all over I’d do a lot of changing knowing what I know now.
“But, people are very important. Don’t ever take anybody for granted. You know, there’s a little bit of good in the worst of us, and a little bit of bad in the best of us. So it all balances out, I guess. I tell people that life’s been good to me and I can tell by the way they look at me that they’re thinking, ‘You old ignorant hillbilly, you ain’t got nothin and then you up and say that?’
“But God’s been good. He’s been good, and I appreciate it. I certainly didn’t deserve this. But that’s just God’s amazing grace… and I’m thankful for it.”