BY SUSAN KNICKERBOCKER
Fred Bixby, this month’s Hometown Hero, lives his life with his glass three-quarters full.
Says paratransit service driver Phyllis Brett, “He could probably complain about a lot of things I would imagine — but he never does.
“When I went over the bus route with him he was so grateful even for such a small thing like this. His friendliness and positive outlook inspires me, along with his uplifting words and his attitude about life.
“He has one of the biggest hearts I know. You just know he would do anything for a person.”
Deanne Nibors of Greenbank tells a story about Bixby.
“My mother was at Careage recuperating from major surgery. I was trying to entertain her, but we were running out of things to talk about.
“One day this man stands at the door way leaning on his white cane, introduces himself as Fred and unassumingly asks if he could come in. At first, to be honest, I was somewhat uncomfortable because I hadn’t seen anyone that looked like him before.
“But within minutes because of his warm, friendly, and witty sense of humor I was immediately put at ease.
“My mom just lit up, as Fred amused us and we discussed books, world politics, religion and philosophy. The difference he made in my mom’s life that day was miraculous, but he made a lasting affect on me, too. I found out from a nurse that Fred volunteers, visiting patients at Careage frequently, and is organizing a book discussion group he’ll co-lead. Once you have spent time with Fred, you are never quite the same.”
Bixby says he enjoys visiting people at Careage.
“Some of the patients who are there a long time become withdrawn,” he says. They need some one to tell their stories to and talk with.
Just simply listening can blast them back to life.”
Bixby is sitting in his living room with Eeker, his rescued cat, at his side. He serves coffee, cream and refreshments, and apologizes about the house, as he and his daughter Jayanne are in the middle of moving. His rescued dog Zumie steals a piece of cheese from his fingers while he is talking.
“When I was born the doctors told my parents I most likely would die within the week. The doctors said even if by some miracle I survived, I would need to live in an institution because I would be a ‘veg.’”
Bixby was born blind and with a birth defect called Apert Syndrome.
“But my parents would have none of that and took me home. When I began to move about and utter words, they surmised I must be brilliant,” he laughs, “So I thought I was, too.”
He smiles, and laughs again, “Not a bad way to start off life.”
Bixby breaks into a broad grin while recalling his youth. He was homeschooled until he was 13.
“It’s at school that I learned I wasn’t the smartest kid in the world like my parents thought,” he smiles.
He said his parents exposed him to the world through camping, visits to science centers, going to airports and swimming. His dad had an interest in nearly everything and passed that curiosity down to his son.
He went on to college and graduated with a master’s degree in counseling at age 24. But when he got out of school, he looked up and down the West Coast and there were no jobs to be found.
“I thought to myself I have two choices: I can look elsewhere for work, or I could run a newsstand.”
So off he went to look for work in the East Coast. He stayed with friends in exchange for being their maid and babysitter.
“It was a fair deal for all of us.”
But three months later, he still hadn’t found work. So he called a friend who lived near Chicago, Ill., and asked if he needed a full-time maid in exchange for a room in his house. His friend was delighted at the deal.
There in Chicago he found a job as an activities director at a rehab center.
“It wasn’t the counseling job I had hoped for, but it was a job and something I could do.” At the rehab center, Bixby kept hearing of an amazing woman everyone respected named Janet. Four years later he met Janet and they immediately hit it off.
Bixby remembers after a few dates “I told her she better know what I look like if she’s going to hang with me.”
“I told her people will say things about my peculiar looks, and she needed to know what she would be getting herself into. Even though Janet was totally blind, she had felt many statues and knew what normal heads felt like. When she began to feel my head, she said ‘Cool! Yours is really different, I like different.’”
They were married six months later. During their married life they moved more than 25 times, sometimes because of work, other times because their affordable apartments were being bulldozed so condos could be built.
People can be cruel sometimes.
“One day a woman stopped me on the street and yelled at me, ‘You should be dead!’ And that my parents should burn in hell for allowing me out.”
He pauses. “Heck, I used to look even stranger,” he says after a brief silence. “Most of my life I was hugely overweight. But thanks to a really stressful job, I lost 100 pounds in two years — along with a lot of hair. There were a couple of people at this particular job that just did everything to try to get me fired or to get me to quit. I guess they weren’t able to accept me and didn’t think I fit in.”
“I painted a picture during this time. I call it ‘Rage,’” he laughs. “Well, least I lost all that weight,” he adds with a smile.
“Some people just aren’t able to get beyond my looks. Most presume I must be dumb. I’ve been asked why don’t I want to get a job working in the back, away from people. I say, ‘But I love people!’ And I like working as a team. I don’t like being alone.”
Bixby and his daughter Jayanne joined the fitness club after moving to Whidbey.
Nancy Strong of Clinton had an encounter with Bixby at the club.
“I was feeling sour about my current life situation so a friend drug me to her club, thinking that would help lift my spirits. While we were in the women’s locker room, I heard a man’s voice. A woman was leading this blind person into the ladies locker room. I overheard this man say. ‘Is this the women’s locker room? Because my name is Fred.’ The woman that had led him in there was so embarrassed. But this Fred quickly said, ‘Oh that’s OK. Don’t worry, I didn’t see anything.’”
“When I saw this man out at the exercise room, and I planted myself on the rower next to him. We started chatting away on all sorts of subjects; he’s so intelligent and interesting. I can’t say I care for exercising, but I can say that Fred totally turned around my outlook that day.”
“People have always been confused about my gender, it wasn’t any different when my hair was short,” Bixby says.
During the interview there is a knock on Bixby’s door. In walks his friend, Don Ingram, a computer technician from Clinton.
“Fred and his daughter Jay are the best friends anyone could ever wish for. They would do anything for you,” Ingram says.
“When I was short of cash, they lent me some money, and told me I could pay it back by working for them. I have Hepatitis C and have a lot of down days, but when I need to talk to someone, they are always here for me. Fred is my inspiration, he’s such a good guy, always volunteering and helping others,” Ingram says.
The hardest thing Bixby has had to endure was the loss of his wife Janet to cancer in 2005. “She was clearly the most remarkable person I have ever met,” Bixby says.
He fights to keep his emotions in check. “You know when I hear people say that they don’t have any regrets, I don’t buy that. I think if someone thinks they wouldn’t change anything they’ve done? Well, then, they have lived an unconscious life.”
“I regret not always being compassionate with Janet,” he says. “I was a pretty good husband, but you know I could have been better. Also I wished I could have made a better living and given her a more comfortable lifestyle.”
Past regrets are an inspiration to do better in the future, he says, and appreciate what he does have. “Like my daughter Jayanee. She is everything to me.”
Craig and Carrie Lewis are Baha’i members who live in Clinton. “Fred, he’s such a dear. His faith causes him to have trust that the world will just accept him. He walks into a room and not only puts others at ease, but lights up the atmosphere. He’s compassionte, courageous and fun. When you meet him you just automatically fall in love with him.”
The Lewis said that Bixby’s life reminds the couple of a Hans Christian Anderson quote, “All is a fairy tale by God’s fingers.”
“Fred must have made a decision many many years ago to make his story one of light, joy and love for others,” they add. “Fred’s outlook emulates an excerpt from the Baha’i -Faith: ‘If we are not happy and joyous at this season, for what other season shall we wait and for what other time shall we look.’”
Bixby says Jayanne and he are both thankful they moved to this special community of people.
“And if I meet some new people from this article that would be great,” he smiles. “I could use some more friends.”