Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:


It was the third week of December, 1986. Depressed, I sat alone in my new apartment.

The divorce from my (first) husband had been finalized that week. Even if a divorce is the best thing for everyone concerned, it still turns your world gray for awhile.

I had always been pretty good at solitude, but being alone in a stark living room with little more than a couch, a bookcase, and a TV plunged me into the abyss.

One evening, I watched a made-for-TV movie starring Marlo Thomas called “It Happened One Christmas.”

The movie was a remake of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – which I had never seen, so the movie was fresh for me. The show began with Marlo Thomas as a woman in despair, seeing no value in her life. I could relate to the despair. Being alone during the holidays and bleeding from the wounds of grief, I wasn’t exactly exuding joy.

Like every single Christmas show ever made, this movie was designed to open one’s heart, to uplift and inspire the viewer. And the movie did its job that night, it pulled me out of the darkness, cauterized my wounds, offered me solid ground on which to walk. I felt revived and whole. And for the first time in months, I felt happy.

It was an enlightening moment. It changed me. And so that’s why, decades later, every December, even though I would certainly never admit it to anyone, I watch Christmas movies. I watch every cheesy, overly-sentimental and Scrooge-inspired movie that I can.

The stories may be about a boy who buys red dancing shoes for his dying mother, a corporate employee too busy for Christmas, a child teaching a harried parent the true meaning of the holiday. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. What’s in it for me? I want to see the softening of hearts. I want to see people doing good things for others.

Last week, while sorting through a box of saved items, I ran across an obituary that I had clipped from The Emporia Gazette several years ago. The obituary was for Billy Cook. He died on Jan, 12, 2009, at age 75. The obit listed no occupation, but said that Billy had been born in Nebraska and graduated from Emporia High.

I didn’t know Billy Cook personally, and yet I saved his obituary. I had wanted to remember Billy because there was something about him that inspired me.

When I moved to town in the ’80s, Billy was a fixture in downtown Emporia. Daily, he walked along Commercial Street and picked up litter. As I remember, Billy had brownish hair, wore glasses, grinned a lot, and said hello to people he encountered.

He darted back and forth on the sidewalk. Billy spied a piece of trash, then aimed for it with his quick step to pick up the aluminum can or the candy bar wrapper.

Billy Cook was a one-man clean-up crew for downtown Emporia. I don’t know what his motivation was, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? He performed a service for the community, keeping Commercial Street litter-free, and he did it with a light spirit and seemingly with joy.

His obituary wasn’t lengthy. Billy had one survivor, a sister in Overland Park. What touched me in the clipping from the Gazette was one particular line:

“Mr. Cook was best known for the many things he did for the betterment of Emporia.”

It was a quiet little line that said so much.

We don’t have to do big things to make a difference in the world. Sometimes what matters most is simply to do whatever job or duty is placed before us, and to do that job with enthusiasm or delight.

In our messy lives, what we’re all really looking for, I think, is peace and joy. It’s not always a direct path there; our navigational systems seem to be broken most of the time.

So we look for inspiration wherever we can find it – in sappy Christmas movies or maybe in the memory of a man who once picked up litter from the city’s streets.

When we see people do good deeds, we are inspired to contribute our own style of goodness to the world. And when we ourselves do kind things, that’s when the joy sneaks in.

 Copyright 2012 – Cheryl Unruh


  1. Thank you Cheryl—& yes– I in my mind could see Bill again—- it had been years since I even thought of Bill– sooooo true– thank you for another good column!!!!

  2. Oh, I just love this. A nice bit of Christmas spirit and wisdom, much needed this year in particular. And now I want to watch a Christmas movie!!

  3. I remember Billy Cook from my college days at KSTC….One time he was walking down Commercial with a little dog. Billy had an ice cream cone and he was sharing it with that little dog! –and talking nonstop. We all liked Billy!

  4. Another great commentary and I enjoyed the comments too. Cheryl, you just amazingly know how to make us feel good all over – especially on the inside. Thank You!

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