When the Board of Education announced that freshman sports would be cut from this year's high school budget, parents and students showed up at the Danbury Public Board of Education meeting to protest.
Many of them were there because of the efforts of Billie Anderson, head custodian at Danbury High School.
“When I heard they were cutting freshman sports, I was kind of taken aback because I know how important it is,” said Anderson, 53, who is divorced and has six grown children, in an interview at the high school. “Kids today need to be busy more than at any other times.”
The program, which 200 students take part in, was rescued by Anderson and a core group of about 10 parents who joined forces. They sold T-shirts, held events, and raised $30,000 within only a few short weeks.
“He rallied the whole community,” said Cindy NeJame, psychology teacher and director of the school plays at DHS.
One person who became very involved was Realtor and parent of an incoming freshman, Lorraine Amaral. “Billie is a phenomenal person. His whole life is based on what is right and what is good for the children. Everybody who has anything to do with DHS has the utmost respect for Billie, from the students, to the staff, to the coaches,'' Amaral said.
Recalling the importance sports had on his own adolescence, Anderson was determined to do something, and he passed out fliers during the Rogers Park and Broadview graduation ceremonies, requesting concerned parents come to a meeting at Danbury Youth Services.
The meeting drew approximately 20 parents, many of whom showed up at the following Board of Education meeting. “I understand one thing about people, especially mothers. Mothers gonna rally when it comes to their kids. But it did surprise me it took off so fast.”
It may seem surprising that a school custodian would get involved in advocating for student sports, but Anderson's life has been full of surprises. Raised in Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper, Anderson's early memories include falling asleep on a sack in the field while trying to help his mother pick cotton. He never knew another way of life, and he didn't know that his school was segregated. He said, “My mother and grandmother never talked about it.”
“It was a change of pace coming up from the South,” Anderson, who now lives in Danbury, said. “We came up here with my nine brothers and sisters, and here you see all colors, you see all mixtures of people.”
The first book he remembers reading was a biography of Frederick Douglas, and it had a tremendous influence on how Anderson has lived his life. The book was given to him by his teacher, and Anderson remembers idolizing Douglas and drawing pictures of him.
But it was not just the racial aspect of the book that inspired Anderson. “When I was growing up there was no black and white, that never appeared to my consciousness. I always saw people, and that has always stayed with me. I still remember as a kid listening to Martin Luther King. When you hear his voice, it stops you in your tracks. And it was the same thing with John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.”
Anderson's commitment to helping others became his driving force, and is behind his involvement with freshman sports. “I think you have to take a stand, you have to get involved. When I look at things like this, I go back to the beginning of this country. You look at all of the sacrifices. Sacrifice does not consist of race. All kinds of people have sacrificed in the past for what we all have this very day.”
Before landing his position as head custodian, Anderson worked as a stock clerk, in packing and shipping, and drove a truck for waste management, lifting the bins for 2,200 customers. “It was a lot of work and I started developing a lot of severe pain in my rotator cuff. I had to get cortisone shots, but I didn't like the way that made me feel so I decided to get out of that line of work. A buddy of mine got me connected with the school system.”
When Anderson was asked when he started working for the school system, without hesitation he recalled the exact date. “I got started in May of '98 as a sub, and on August 3, '98, I was hired full-time.”
Anderson has made the most of his time in the school system. “Kids need someone they can look up to. The administration is the administration. Me? I'm the custodian. So I can talk to them with some perspective."
“He is the custodian of people's hearts and souls. His sense of community has no boundaries,” NeJame said in a telephone interview. “He is a role model for anyone who knows him. For the students, he is such a foundation, he is so respectful, caring, kind. He is the hardest worker you could ever find.”
NeJame said that Anderson has been way more than a custodian at DHS and indeed, Anderson has worn many hats.
“I coached freshman basketball in '07,” Anderson said. “If the coaches rent a van, and they need a driver, I do that. I've been in the school plays. I'm the guy who can help people get what they need, without them being afraid to ask. The kids know me, every graduating class knew me, and they call me Billie, which I don't mind.”
During the season's very first practice, on the day it was announced that freshman sports would continue, Anderson walked out to the field where he was introduced to this year's group of freshman football players. The students thanked Anderson, and one by one, each young player began to clap until all were clapping their hands for him. Anderson beamed.
Now that the city has found the money for freshman sports this year, Anderson and the original group, who have organized to become a non-profit 501 C3 organization called The Hatters Booster Club, will pursue the funds to continue next year.
Anderson believes that in a school the size of DHS the students need sports to get them through. “Those little kids coming into a school this size, there is a lot of intimidation, and these kids need this. Sports helped me to get to know a lot of kids I didn't know. You got that team concept, the team chemistry, listening to the coach, winning, and also losing. These kids need sports.”
Anderson believes that sports helps students academically, as well. He said, “A lot of kids, it keeps their grades up. And I always say, Why just leave it at a C+ to stay in sports? Why not raise it to an A? They would do it. If they love the game, they would do it. Raise the bar, and they will rise up to meet it."