Leader Blues

Friday, June 27, 2008

TOP STORY > >Myers scaling back after 80 years of volunteerism

Leader staff writer

Billie Ann Myers of Jacksonville is in her eighth decade of volunteerism. She thinks it is about time to scale back her community endeavors.

“At least no more multi-year projects – no more bridges, arenas, or state operations,” vows Myers, who is looking forward to more time for family and perhaps painting and drawing, a lifelong interest.

In the next year, Myers will step down as president of the state American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and as chair of the county board charged with construction and management of the newly opened Junction Bridge, a pedestrian and bicycle crossing between Little Rock and North Little Rock. Both of these demanding leadership positions are entirely voluntary, as have been so many of the other service roles Myers has played in her lifetime.

These endeavors follow on the heels of Myers’ stint on another county board that oversaw an earlier high-profile construction project – the Alltel Arena, in North Little Rock. Myers, at the invitation of County Judge F.G. “Buddy” Villines, joined that board in 1995; the arena opened in 1999. Myers’ term ended in 2001.

At that point, Myers said she intended to “take a breather,” but that same year she was invited to serve on the state AARP executive council, and has served as council chair since 2004.

In 2002, Myers joined the Pulaski County Bridges Facilities Board, again at the invitation of Villines. Soon after coming on the board, Myers was unanimously elected chair by the other four members, who are all men.

According to Villines, he and the other board members saw in Myers the requisite leadership skills for a challenging project.

The idea of converting the 100-year-old-plus railroad bridge to a foot and bike crossing had languished since the mid 1990s.

By 2002, the price of steel had skyrocketed, making the original design out of reach. Community stakeholders on the north and south shores had different ideas about how to spend limited funds. An impartial party was needed to bring both sides together.

“She was the ideal person,” Villines said. “She is inclusive, patient, able to work with other people – not just the board, but professional folks – architects, engineers. The public facilities board is a group of strong men, but they had confidence in her, not because she is a woman, but because she is Billie Ann.”

Myers’ handling of a crisis on opening day of the arena proved that she had the mettle and aplomb for the complex and unexpected. Just hours before the inaugural sports event, an engineer discovered a crack in a beam in the balcony. The game was called off, the arena board chair wound up in the hospital from stress and high blood pressure, and Myers suddenly was facing reporters and TV news cameras to explain what had happened.

She says her work as a TV camera operator in her early years of teaching junior high and later as a division chief in state government prepared her for the crisis. It helped too that most reporters covering the story were about the age of her grandchildren. “They were so sweet – how could they not be nice to someone who reminded them of their grandmother?” she laughed.

“It seemed like an eternity, but actually only lasted a week,” Myers said of the episode.

Myers traces her lifetime of volunteerism to the example set by her grandparents and parents, who instilled her with “a sense of obligation to others – that you did what you could to make life better for everybody.” Myers’ first act of volunteerism was at age 8. She sold U.S. savings stamps for the war effort. Both her parents were “doers.” Her mother was creative – “someone who would rather make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear than buy one,” she recalls.

Myers’ father worked as an agricultural engineer during the New Deal era, mapping soil types across south Arkansas. Short stays in one town then another taught Myers early in life to adapt to new situations and be comfortable with strangers.

“I had to make friends quickly because I might not see them again,” Myers said. “I never got attached to any place – except maybe my grandmother’s house, so I tend to be part of any place I am.”

Over the years, that positive attitude towards new circumstances and challenges has been the open door to many successes for Myers.

After marrying and starting a family, she put her college education on hold until both daughters were in elementary school. It was her husband who encouraged her to pursue her love of art and earn a degree. One summer while a student at Arkansas State, she and a fellow student taught art classes to Paragould youth.

In the process, she caught the attention of the school superintendent, who asked Myers to establish an art program in the schools after she graduated. In her years with Paragould schools, Myers helped establish art departments on the elementary, junior high, and high school levels and participated in a federally funded pilot project that tested the viability of television as a teaching method for art, Spanish and music. As part of a creative team, Myers proved herself as a “jack of all trades” – puppeteer, graphics designer and camera operator. She taught eighth graders how to run a TV school news program.

In 1973, Dub Myers’ career in the National Guard took the couple to Camp Robinson. With one daughter now in college and the other newly married, and her husband busy with new responsibilities, Myers found herself at loose ends. With her characteristic practicality, she chose to confront her lack of purpose head on.

“I could sit there and be depressed or go to the Art Center and have lunch,” said Myers. She wasn’t sitting at the Vineyard restaurant long before a waitress approached her to ask if she’d be interested in volunteering to wait tables. At the time, the café’s wait staff was all volunteers. Myers happily accepted. “I was looking to reinvent myself.” That opportunity soon led to a series of enjoyable service activities – as a museum docent, director of volunteers, and board chair of the Arts Center’s Fine Arts Club.

By the late 70s, Myers was ready to explore new horizons in the realm of public service. She stepped into party politics for the first time as a volunteer on Bill Clinton’s first gubernatorial campaign. In 1979, she joined Clinton’s staff as a non-paid aide to his scheduling director a couple of days a week. Unlike many political campaign helpers, Myers had no career ambitions – only a desire to be of service and in the process keep her life interesting. She found it “great fun to be right in the middle of things volunteering in the governor’s inner sanctum.”

Her knack for problem-solving and communication led to more responsibilities and an offer of a secretarial job in the state Office of Volunteerism, then housed in the governor’s office. Not wanting full-time work, she and Sybil Gwatney, friend and fellow volunteer, pitched the idea of job sharing to the director, Pat Torvestad.

“That was unheard of in state government at the time, but Pat loved the idea,” Myers said. “She got two different skill sets for the price of one.”

A couple of years later, when Clinton lost to Frank White, Myers’ job was in jeopardy. Clinton advised her and her staff to keep a low profile, which worked for a little while, until one Friday afternoon, White’s chief of staff announced everyone was terminated, except for Myers, who was promoted to acting director effective the following Monday.

Eight months later, Gov. White decided Myers was a keeper and made her director of the Arkansas Office of Volunteerism, which relocated to the Department of Human Services in 1981.

A bit of an oddity in the huge DHS bureaucracy, Myers’ tiny department was regarded as “everybody’s pet,” free to be innovative and create volunteer programs for the state.

In time, her tiny staff grew to 25 employees, needed mainly to coordinate activities of the Delta Service Corps, a prototype of AmeriCorps with a presence not only in east Arkansas but also north Louisiana and west Mississippi.

Myers’ work took her across the region and frequently to Washington. All that came to a halt in 1994, when Dub Myers suffered a stroke, necessitating her resignation. By the next year, his recovery was complete. So when Villines asked Myers to consider serving on the Alltel Arena project, she was able to say yes.

Myers sees her life as a series of amazing opportunities, each preparing her for more that lay ahead.

Right now, she is looking forward to more time with her husband – they will celebrate their 56th anniversary in August – and her two daughters, Olivia Farrell and Lee Ann Mishler; four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and two “great-grandchildren in-law.”

She says that she may even take on more volunteering if it is something closer to home and something she does not have to be in charge of.

“There are so many wonderful things to do; good things come when you are willing to walk through an open door,” she said.

“And it is okay to do something different – it is good to do things that are different.”

Myers’ dream as a young woman had been to join the Army as her dad had or to be an astronaut, but at the time, there were no female astronauts and the Army only accepted women into the nursing corps.

For someone with her flair for innovation perhaps that was just as well, she has concluded. “Yes, that would probably have been too structured for me.” Instead, she trusted her creative instincts and followed her heart for service – and found fulfillment after all.