VIDEO ARCHIVE is an occasional series by TheStoryIsTheThing.com showcasing past videos which deserve another viewing — even long after the occasion of their first release.
ON THANKSGIVING 2022, who do we thank beyond our most obvious loved ones? This video depicts a different sort of thanks — honoring a workaday life not usually lifted up, celebrated, and appreciated. When Belle, W.Va., resident Frances Buzzard turned 77 in January 2018, the occasion was special. It may sound hard to fathom, but in her seven decades of life the Belle Elementary School custodian could not recall having had a birthday party.
They threw her a big one Jan. 19, 2018, in the school’s cafeteria and gym. They first called her to the gym over the school’s intercom. Did she have a mess to clean up? “Shhhhhh!!!!” teachers told more than 200 students gathered there. I was there as a Charleston Gazette-Mail feature writer and videographer, along with photographer Chris Dorst. Here is how the surprise unfolded. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno
‘THE BIRTHDAY GIRL’ | Click to View Video
For updates on new essays, poems, diatribes, photo essays, experimental videos & sorta memoir excerpts, subscribe to this site’s free e-mail newsletter: TheStoryIsTheThing.substack.com
Reprint of original story from the Charleston Gazette-Mail
Belle Elementary custodian gifted with surprise first-ever birthday party
By Douglas Imbrogno | CHARLESTON GAZETTE-MAIL | Jan 26, 2018
BELLE — Frances Buzzard couldn’t stop smiling. She wiped tears from her eyes, momentarily upsetting a tiara newly placed upon her head. It was a cardboard, glitter-encrusted pink tiara that read “Happy Birthday,” but a tiara, nonetheless.
“It’s a great party! The biggest I’ve ever known,” Frances said.
It was also the first birthday party in her nearly 77 years of life, she said.
The Belle Elementary School custodian — known by staff and students as ‘Miss Frances’ — had just been called to the school’s combination cafeteria and gym shortly after lunch ended Jan. 19, along with fellow custodian, Rendell Heater.
“Rendell and Miss Frances, could you please report to the cafeteria?” speakers requested, crackling to life throughout the school.
What was it? Some mess they had been called to mop up?
But Rendell knew what was up. He led her to the cafeteria and then let her walk through the door alone.
As she made the turn from a quiet school corridor, more than 200 students, seated in rows on the floor, burst out raucously in ragged unison.
“Happy birthday, Miss Frances!” Principal Amanda Mays chimed in, holding a microphone.
The principal quickly explained that, although the custodian’s actual birthday was coming up on Tuesday, Miss Frances would not be in school on the day she turned 77.
So, this big party was for her.
Mays draped a “Happy Birthday” sash across the custodian, perched the tiara on her head and directed her to a chair in the center of the room.
Miss Frances sat down, surrounded on all sides by students, as if she had just been appointed queen of a kingdom of kids.
Just for that hour, she had been.
Curtains parted on a stage at one end of the big room. A video came to life on a screen, featuring altered photos of historic scenes from the decades of her life. There was Miss Frances with John F. Kennedy. There was Miss Frances on the moon beside astronaut Neil Armstrong in his spacesuit. There she was at Woodstock.
The students and school staff sang “Happy Birthday.” The school cooks rolled out a cart of cupcakes and cookies for everyone.
And Frances soaked it all in. It was quite a start to her usual evening custodial shift.
She started working at the school last year. And, yes, she reported, she had never had a proper birthday party in her life.
“I don’t remember any,” she said.
But wait, there had been one party planned once.
“They had me one, but it was so icy and cold, nobody came,” she recalled. She grew up at the head of Coal Fork Hollow in Cabin Creek.
“There’s a coal mine up there now where our house was,” she said.
The family didn’t have much money. Her father, after time spent in the armed services and working in timber, was unable to work anymore because of asthma and a heart condition, she said.
So, there were no birthday parties as a child that she could recall. Back in those days, “they didn’t do things like that,” she said. “We didn’t have Christmas parties either. They would get us fruits and nuts when they could afford it.”
Miss Frances has made an impression at the school with her unflagging work ethic.
“When they said we were getting a custodian who was 75, 76 years old, I thought, ‘Oh, great! That’s just wonderful,’ because we already don’t have enough custodial help,” said school counselor Chelena McCoy.
Very shortly after she came, Chelena began noticing something different around the school.
“Everything looked so shiny,” she said.
Miss Frances came into Chelena’s office one day and asked whether it was a good time to do some polishing.
“I’m like, ‘Polish? Polish what?’” Chelena said.
Well, Miss Frances said, the desk and office furniture and stuff.
“I’m, like, ‘Well, that’s not your job, Miss Frances.’ She said, ‘Oh, yes! That’s our job.’ And I’m thinking, ‘You know, I’ve worked in this school forever, and nobody ever said anything about polishing,’” Chelena said. “So, this lady is twice our age, but she does three times the work. She’s something else. Everybody just loves her. You can’t get her to stop.”
But she did stop for a little bit. To wear a tiara. To open presents. Then, to greet and hug some of the schoolkids as they filed out of the gym on their way back to class.
I can’t believe it,” she said, marveling at the day’s events.