Merlene Davis: Mr. Bills has his day at Yates Elementary

Gene Bills was honored as the first Yates volunteer of the month during a surprise ceremony on Wednesday.
Gene Bills was honored as the first Yates volunteer of the month during a surprise ceremony on Wednesday. Herald-Leader

Gene Bills, 76, wasn't very happy Wednesday morning.

A faithful volunteer at Yates Elementary School, Bills had been called into the school by Principal Twanjua Jones for "safety training."

"He said, 'I don't know why I have to go to mandatory safety training at 9 o'clock on my day off,'" said Bills' wife, Joyce. "I don't need safety training."

And he was right. He didn't need safety training and wasn't going to get any.

Jones and members of the Yates staff were planning to honor Bills as their first "Yates Volunteer of the Month."

Wednesday was "Mr. Bills Day."

Shortly after 9 a.m., Bills entered the cafeteria to find children cheering for him and Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Tom Shelton waiting to congratulate him for his faithful service.

"I'm the last to find out anything," he said later after learning that his wife, daughter and two grandsons who attend Yates all were in on the secret.

Bills hauled gasoline around Lexington for more than 44 years, the last 25 while owning his own fleet of trucks. He said he retired 11 years ago, but continued to work part-time for nine more years. "I drove for three million miles accident free," he said.

Last year, Shelton came to the Wednesday night prayer meeting at Immanuel Baptist Church to ask for volunteers to help out in the schools.

"Joyce was sitting beside me and said, 'That is a good job for you,'" Bills recalled.

He hesitated because he wouldn't earn any money. "She said 'You haven't worked in the last two years, so it doesn't make any difference,'" Bills said.

He applied online and four days later he was notified he had passed the background check.

"So I came here and started doing it and fell in love with it," Bills said.

He claims he was shy when he started, standing back and watching teachers correct children. It didn't last long.

"After four or five weeks, I said, 'Turn around and put your feet under the table.' After a while, I was a little Hitler."

That's not how teachers or staff described him. And, after watching him call students by name and offering hugs, it doesn't appear the children see him that way either.

"You can't teach a person to love and care," Jones said. "That is innate. Kids see that through your actions. Mr. Bills' actions show it, not just for the children, but with the staff. It gives me chills to think about it.

"On these rainy days, he brings sunshine," she said. "He is a breath of fresh air, the energy that we need."

Bills helps prepare the lunch room for the children who start coming in for lunch about 10:50 a.m. He works from about 10:15 a.m. to 12:40 p.m., three days a week.

When he's not doing that, his hobby is working with the American Truck Historical Society, Bluegrass Chapter. Last week, he and his wife, along with Roseanne Mingo of VisitLex, Lexington's convention and visitors bureau, and members of the group traveled to York, Penn., where the national group was meeting. They won the right to host the 2018 annual antique truck convention at the Kentucky Horse Park.

"It was between Lexington and Kalamazoo, Mich.," Bills said, "and we won. (Mingo) presented our side."

Throughout the trip, Bills was telling everyone he met about how much he enjoys working with the children, said Joyce Bills, his wife of 51 years. "When we go on vacation, he gets homesick to come back to the children and to the staff," she said.

Fayette County Public Schools would love to have more volunteers like that.

"We go to church together and he shares with me regularly on Sunday about how much he loves working with kids," Shelton said. "Our faith-based community has stepped up but we need more."

Volunteers can work in a variety of jobs in the schools, from tutoring to clerical work, helping in the library or with computers. Most jobs require little or no training.

"Teachers work really hard with the children," Jones said. "The volunteers add an extra layer of support for the students. Children want to please. You can see the children's faces light up when they see people giving of their time."

A background check is required and the application process can start on the schools' Family and Community Engagement (FACE) page,

"If you don't have anything to do, it gives you something to occupy your time," Bills said. "You will fall in love with it."

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