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Posted at 2:16 PM ET, 06/ 1/2009

A Good Teacher for Work and Friendship

By Vince Rinehart

By Rennie Coleman

Something in The Post took me by surprise last week. I had turned to the back of the Metro section to look at the weather, when a lone picture in the Death Notices spoke to me. It was of William “Billy” Chichester. Memories from 40 years ago leaped to the surface of my consciousness.

In the 24 years I worked at Giant Food, Bill was one of my closest friends and confidants. I left Giant in 1994, and I guess I thought that Bill would keep popping up in my life unexpectedly. I have often thought of him and the time we spent together.

It was August 1973. Married 10 days, I reported to Giant Food Store No. 92, Yorktown Shopping Center, Fairfax. I was the new assistant manager, and so I spent the morning meeting employees and checking out my new environment.

Early afternoon, I observed a tall, black man with a mop, furiously attacking the floor at the end of the back aisle. Not having met him, I walked over to introduce myself. He was as tall as I was, but his back was stiffly bent at the hips, as if he couldn’t quite stand erect. I stuck my hand out and shook a hand extremely calloused from hard work. He returned my greeting, talked and talked, but I could not for the life of me understand one word he said. I walked back to the office and asked the store manager: “Who in the world is that?” He looked at me, smiled and said, “Oh, that’s just ‘Dude,’ he’s a good man.” And that’s how I met Bill.

Bill worked two jobs at the time, but his schedule at the Yorktown Giant coincided with mine. Bill had multiple disabilities, possibly a cleft palate and something that affected his back and legs. It appeared that most of the store staff understood Bill’s manner of speaking, but I had to learn the code to interpreting it. Within the first month, I only picked up some of Bill’s pronunciations. Fortunately, Bill understood me perfectly, and he addressed whatever I assigned to him with a fury. Over the next year, a solid bond between us grew from our frequent conversations in and outside the store.

There are some people who befriend an employee or boss and then expect or give favoritism. Bill’s and my relationship was based on mutual respect and equality. I did not defer to his disabilities, and he did not apologize for who he was or how he was. In the store, he remained a hard worker and adjusted to a rookie’s demands. He would let me know when I was wrong with a blend of intelligent sarcasm and good humor. He had a great sense of humor, but he had a bigger heart.

Bill never once complained about his hardships, the obvious stares or his lot in life. It is truly amazing how disarming hard work and enthusiasm can be, and this is how Bill dealt with prejudice and just about everything else. Bill was always talking about his grandmother, whom he lived with and cared for. I remember how saddened he was when he told me his grandmother had died. The love he spoke about came out in our conversations, and also, the humor. At the time, I think I knew more about his grandmother than about most of my relatives.

Unfortunately, I lost touch with Bill when I started working in Fredericksburg, eventually moving there in 1990 with my family. I read of Bill’s passing with great sadness, wishing that I could have been there for him and been that friend again.

Every day that I knew Bill, his face would beam his enthusiasm for life. I guess that’s why I heard his picture in the paper speaking to me — his smile radiating outward while drawing my eyes inward to glimpse a life of worth, a life of substance. In his own way, Bill went about changing the world.

Looks as if Bill will have an opportunity to introduce me now, assuming I go to the same place he is today. I loved the man, and I am so proud to have known him.

I never told him that, but he knows.

By Vince Rinehart  | June 1, 2009; 2:16 PM ET
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