52 Ancestors, week #14 – “The Mayor of Framingham”


No Story Too Small has issued a New Year’s Challenge: “Have one blog post each week devoted to a specific ancestor. It could be a story, a biography, a photograph, an outline of a research problem — anything that focuses on one ancestor.”  

I didn’t know my Uncle Charlie, the youngest of my mother’s three siblings.   He was born on 2 July 1941.  The family was split up and the kids placed in foster care. My mother, who spent her entire childhood in foster care, was later informed that 3-year old Charlie had died.

Turns out, he was very much alive.  In 1997 a friend of his, named Rose, a genealogist, uncovered some members of the family; I was in my 30’s, living in California, and unaware of the reunion. Until I began to delve into my family history a few years ago, I literally knew nothing of my mother’s family except that I was Lithuanian and French Canadian.  I met her sister once or twice, as a very young child, and my only memory is that she made us an amazing batch of Southern biscuits.  I guess I knew my mother had two brothers, one in Vegas and another who I recollected was in an institution, and both physically and mentally handicapped.  I never asked for specifics and she rarely spoke of her past.

Uncle Charlie died three years ago, on 14 March 2011.  I never met him. I wish I had – he sounds like an amazing man! After Uncle Charlie died, my mother forwarded me an online news article about him.  It was after his funeral. What an amazing life! I was floored – he was not at all as I had imagined!

One good thing came from his death. A woman named “Nona” had posted a sweet comment, under the story in the MetroWest Daily News blog; signing as his niece.  This led me to connect with my aunt and my meeting three generations of cousins in Alabama (whom I had never met) through the power of Facebook.  Turns out, a few months after Charlie’s passing,  I was headed to Birmingham, Alabama for IGHR (Samford Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research) , just 45 minutes from them, what a wonderful reunion and great people!  I am looking forward to another visit in a few months.

It is unfortunate that I didn’t find this message board post about Uncle Charlie a few years earlier….

Ancestry.com Message Board Post from 2000

Hi List members,

A few years ago I helped a man find his Family. He was left at the Wrentham
State Hospital.

After two years of researching I found a death certificate, found the obit. in the
newspaper,looked up the telephone number of a relative in the obit., and of
course called. His family and two sisters and a brother were told he had died
as a young child. Charlie was in his forty’s at this time. Well, they ended
up contacting Charlie Billings of Framingham, MA. They brought him pictures
of his parents, family and a huge stuffed bear. This was the Christmas story in
the local paper. And,all because of a phone call !! So, give it a try, CALL!!

Rose

Charlie’s Story: A Framingham man’s remarkable life and legacy

By Julia Spitz/Daily News staff  (MetroWest Daily News)

Untitled

If our worth can be measured in the number of lives we touch, Charlie Billings died a very wealthy man.

Some called him “the mayor of Framingham.” Some knew him simply as the man on the cherry-red scooter.Whether they knew him by name or not, when Billings was found dead in his Rose Kennedy Lane apartment March 14, he left a vast circle of friends.

“He could sit down with a millionaire or somebody who crawled out from under a rock, and bring out the best in them,” said Hopkinton resident Don MacNeill.

“He had friends from all walks of life,” said Leo Gleason of Framingham, former director of the Bowleros special-needs bowling league.

He was a friend of firefighters at the Concord Street station, a friend of the Old Guard Riders veterans assistance and motorcycle group, a friend of the local police. “If you were on a detail, Charlie would come over and talk,” said Framingham Police Lt. William Delaney. “You’d look forward to him coming over. He never overstayed his welcome.””

His smile used to brighten my day,” said the Rev. Francisco Anzoategui, co-pastor of St. Stephen Church, where Billings faithfully attended Mass.”

He was loved by everybody,” said Mostafa “Mozie” Qerqach, owner of Hartford Street Pizza, where Billings would go for cheeseburgers and veal.

“He had nothing to give but himself,” said longtime friend Ed Convery, retired principal and former Framingham Historical Society president. “Charlie was sent into this world to show acceptance.”

Acceptance of his fellow man, no matter what form they come in, no matter what their strengths or weaknesses. Acceptance that the past can’t be changed, only learned from, and used to make the present and future a little brighter.

He could have been bitter’

Billings was born 69 years ago in Gardner, but “Charlie’s family was broken up when he was 3 years old,” said Alison Arnold, a social worker who was Billings’ longtime case manager. He was left on the steps of Tewksbury State Hospital [NOTE – not true, see his sister’s comments below].

At 12, he was moved to Wrentham State Hospital.”We were just amazed when he talked to us” and told some of what he had endured as a child, said Arnold. “He said, “In Wrentham, I was beaten every single day”.

In talking to a reporter in the 1980s, Billings recalled, “Nobody taught us anything. I just sat most of the day with my arms folded in the day room. … I was beaten. What reason? No reason.  Every day, I was hit over the head with keys or across my legs and feet with a baseball bat. “When he was 12, somebody at the state hospital took a baseball bat and broke both his kneecaps,” said Gleason.

Billings wore braces on his legs for most of his life.  Eventually, his mobility became so limited he needed to use an electric scooter to get around.

“He didn’t like the idea of a wheelchair,” said MacNeill.” He could have been a bitter person for all the atrocities that were done to him,” said Gleason. “He never had bitter words for people. He always had a smile on his face.”

“Charlie was one of the first out” when deinstitutionalization began in the 1970s, said Arnold.

Fred Gaspari, who worked tirelessly on behalf of the South Middlesex Association for Retarded Citizens, picked Billings to be among the first Wrentham residents moved into the community. Billings was placed in a group home in Framingham, then became one of the first to transition to living on his own in the 1980s.

He couldn’t read or write, but he managed. “His social skills really got him through,” said Arnold.

In 1985, he received the national Bill Sackter Citizenship Award, given in honor of the man whose life story was portrayed in the Emmy-winning TV movie, “Bill,” a man whose story of moving from an institution to independence mirrored Billings’ life.”

The similarities were unreal,” said Alfred Bergeron, Billings’ cousin.

The national honor meant a great deal to Billings, his friends said. He used his painful lessons to help others, speaking to groups of new Department of Mental Retardation employees going to work in community programs, and also to college students. “He was a powerful speaker” who could explain such things as why a client might not close the door for privacy, because in an institutional setting, there were no doors, said Arnold.

MacNeill, who is national director of the Old Guard Riders, asked Billings to use his insights to be a disabled veterans’ advocate with the group, and Billings, though not a veteran, happily took on the role.

“Charlie had a huge heart,” said Fred Collotta, co-owner of Collotta Hairstyling on Hartford Street. About four years ago, he bought Honey Dew Christmas stockings for Fred and his brother, Peter Collotta. “People that had a lot more than Charlie would never do that.”

After the recent funeral of Delaney’s cousin, Billings “got up and walked about 10 rows to shake my hand and pat me on the back,” the police lieutenant recalled. The act of kindness was all the more special because of the effort it took for Billings to walk.

“He always joined us on Christmas Eve,” said Arnold, but one Christmas Eve Billings insisted they stop at a dialysis center to visit a friend in treatment. The friend told her, “Charlie sits with me day after day when I have dialysis.” “He’s been my close friend all my life,” said Natick resident Michael Sheppard. “We both came out of Wrentham together.”

“Charlie was of great assistance to Michael,” who was born without hands, said Deborah Kent, who works with Sheppard.

Friends and family

Billings’ interests were as varied as his circle of friends. He held several jobs through South Middlesex Association of Retarded Citizens, and a few he got on his own. Sheppard recalled how they worked at the Sheraton in the laundry room together. About 10 years ago, Billings worked at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Concord Street, where he was a frequent patron.”He was busing the tables on his own” because he liked things neat, said Arnold. “They asked if he wanted a job.”

“Charlie had a fascination with motorcycles,” said MacNeill, who met Billings at a charity ride about 15 years ago. “I came out and he was sitting on my bike.”

He also enjoyed watching wrestling on TV with Sheppard on Monday nights.  He liked going to Mohegan Sun, on trips planned by the Arnolds, said Gleason. “He’d come back and be telling stories about the people he met down there.

A favorite saying was “everybody’s in a hurry to go nowhere,” and yet, for a man who wasn’t in a hurry, he got around. “We were pretty amazed at the distance he covered in that electric scooter,” said Stone, the Fire Department captain. “He’d show up everywhere.

“Billings had his picture taken with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson when the wrestler-turned-actor was in Framingham to shoot scenes for “The Game Plan” in 2006.

A Daily News photo taken last fall shows him talking with Gov. Deval Patrick.

On visits to see his cousin, “I met people all through Framingham,” Bergeron said. But the visits between the cousins only began about 15 years ago. Until Billings’ friend, Rose Baldini, did some records and genealogy sleuthing in the mid-1990s, Billings had no idea he had family, and they had no idea about him. He had a reunion with sisters, Shirley and Elizabeth, in 1997. “That was a precious moment for him to see his two sisters,” said Bergeron, who lives in Orange.

Arnold and her spouse, Amanda Arnold, took Billings to meet his brother, Ralph, in Las Vegas, a few years ago. While they were there, they took in some shows and saw the sights, said Alison Arnold.”We’ re so thankful we did that with Charlie,” she said.

“I just wish a lot of people who saw him through the years (knew) they missed out on a lot not getting to know him,” said Gleason.

Visitation will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday at St. Stephen Church, followed by a funeral Mass at 11.

Cousin Alfred Bergeron, Aunt Lena Roy and Charles A Billings Jr

Charlie’s Obituary:
Charles A. Billings, 69, a longtime Framingham resident passed away suddenly at his home on March 14, 2011. Born in Gardner, MA, he was the son of Charles and Yvonne Mary (Roy) Billings.

Charlie was one of the earliest residents to transition into the community from the Wrentham State School.  His life in Framingham marked a very successful journey from institutionalization to independent living for which he was honored at the national level in 1985 as the second ever recipient of the Bill Sackter Award.

His work history included employment at SMARC, Framingham Union Hospital and Dunkin Donuts.

His real passion was working as a consultant for the Dept. of Mental Retardation speaking about his life experiences and being an active advocate for people with developmental disabilities. He was recognized by many news organizations and the state legislature for this valuable work.

Charlie was well known and loved by many people throughout the MetroWest Area and he could often be seen rolling around town on his red scooter.

He was a special friend of the Framingham Engine #6 Firefighters and he was an active member of and Veterans liaison for the Old Guard Riders Inc.

He was always willing to lend a hand to those in need.

He participated in the Special Olympics and the SMARC Bowleros bowling league.

Charlie is survived by his sisters, Shirley Smith of Sylacauga, AL and Elizabeth Hall of Malden, MA, his brother, Ralph Billings of Las Vegas, NV and his cousins Alfred Bergeron and family of Orange, MA.

He was a communicant of St. Stephens Parish at 251 Concord St. Framingham, where services will be held. Visitation will be at the church on Saturday, March 26th from 9 to 11AM followed by an 11AM Funeral Mass.

Donations in his memory may be made to a charity of your choice.

One of His Sisters Recalls:
Charlie was born with a club foot and that was part of his problem walking.  I understand somewhere along the way he had surgery on it.

I don’t understand why it is constantly being said that he was left on a doorstep!

We were in the house on Green Street in Lynn, MA. A women and two policemen came to the house. Our mother was in the hospital with Tuberculousis. Our father was home with us.  These people said we had to go with them.  Our father sat at the kitchen table begging them not to take us.  Needless to say they did anyway, saying he could not take care of us.

I understand that a neighbor said we were left alone while he went to work.  He did, but the lady upstairs always kept an eye on us.

The state took all four of us to Tewksbury Hospital to be evaluated.  NO ONE was left on it’s doorstep.  When we left there we were all separated.  I have no idea where the others went.

 More Thoughts

There seem to be many folks out there who knew Charlie.  A Google search didn’t reveal any further information about his experiences (bowling, Special Olympics, etc.) or awards.  If you are reading this blog and knew Charlie, I would love to capture your stories!  LindaHalLittle@gmail.com –  I will only add your comments here if you want me to, please specify that you wish to keep your thoughts private or anonymous if that is the case.

 Update

The Framingham Patch was kind enough to post a link to this blog on Facebook.  I would like to post the comments to capture them for future generations of my family.

Sheree Ginsburg-King I have known Charlie for many years since I was 20 he use to come into my salon and get his hair cut and would always buy me Charlie perfume for my tip. We lost track of each other for a bit, I married a Framingham Fire Fighter and low an behold one day while my husband was at work there was Charlie talking to him. My husband said I want you to meet someone, and I said OMG Charlie and we began our friendship like it was before. I was able to go to the church for his service. Charlie would take my daughter for a quick ride on that little red scooter around the Fire house. Charlie will always have a piece of my heart as he always gave me his. So glad I saw this on FB today put a smile on my face and I needed it.

 

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Elizabeth Billings Hall on March 31, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    Charles was NOT left on any doorstep. He was brought INTO the hospital
    with his three siblings for evaluation! Miss Arnold, as his long time case
    worker, should have know this. Charles was born with a club foot that
    prevented him from walking as an infant. Why the state put him in
    a mental institution is unknown. He should have been in foster care like
    his siblings.

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  2. […] to the Past has the incredible story of Charles Billings, “the Mayor of Framingham.” Wally Huskonen describes how he’s related to his wife (hint: it’s more than […]

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  3. So interesting how people cope. He could have been so bitter, but instead he turned life into a celebration of being alive. What a lesson “the mayor” is teaching us still today. Thank you for telling his story — and telling it so well.

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    • Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. Yes, he gave us quite a lesson – I am happy to at least know him a little through genealogy, and hope that he lives on through his nieces and nephews.

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  4. Hi,

    I want you to know that your blog is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2014/04/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-april-4-2014.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

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  5. In the 1980s, I had the privilege of working with adults like Charlie who were in transition from state institutions to a group home and Charlie’s story brought back many memories of the wonderful people I spent those years with. Charlie’s story is wonderful in so many ways, including the reuniting of family. Thank you for sharing his story.

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