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Published: Thursday, 9/16/2004

Fulton County: Birthday Lady takes care to observe everyone else's

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Helen Gillen updates her sign that is designed to make those passing by a little bit happier. She has a master list that includes more than 2,400 names for birthdays and anniversaries. Helen Gillen updates her sign that is designed to make those passing by a little bit happier. She has a master list that includes more than 2,400 names for birthdays and anniversaries.
LONG / BLADE Enlarge

ASSUMPTION - At Helen Gillen's house, every day is someone's birthday.

For 20 years, Mrs. Gillen has posted special occasion salutes, front-yard friendly messages to the masses.

"I do it to make people happy," said Mrs. Gillen, owner and keeper of the Birthday Sign that has become a Fulton County landmark along U.S. 20 at the edge of this small community.

In the early years, she painted dozens and dozens of names on the sign. But the personalized postings have become increasingly popular. Now, her list includes more than 2,400 names and dates. Most are birthdays, others are anniversary dates. Birth announcements are posted, too.

"It's a gift of love," said Char Kreuz who lives in the area. Mrs. Kreuz, who was choir director at the local church, provided one of the first lists of dates for the sign, recalled Mrs. Gillen.

Many motorists drive past the sign along the heavily traveled highway. Some honk hello as they drive by. Seems appropriate - it was a honking truck driver who got things rolling about 20 years ago.

The truck driver, a friend of Mrs. Gillen's, told her that he honked when he went past the house, but that he felt like he was just "honking for the pigs in the barnyard." Not one to let down a friend, Mrs. Gillen came up with a plan of action. She cleaned up an old sign - her husband's grandfather used it at a gas station just west of here at one time and it was later used to advertise eggs for sale. Then, Mrs. Gillen painted a message for her truck-driver friend and his wife: "Hi Jack. How's Sharon?"

After a couple of weeks, someone asked if the sign could be used to send a birthday message to a person who regularly drives through Assumption on U.S. 20. Soon, others wanted in on the specialized greetings. Mrs. Gillen eagerly complied, and started to collect names and dates, including lists provided on a calendar from Mrs. Kreuz.

"She's been doing this forever," said Mrs. Kreuz. It's one way that Mrs. Gillen reaches out to others, she said.

Her reach extends to Canada and Florida and Hawaii. "People call me with requests," she said. And more names are added. "My sister wrote the parish newsletter and it had a birthday list," said Mrs. Gillen who checks birth announcements in local newspapers to obtain more names and dates for her special greeting card. "I get names from conversations with others. I have relatives all over. I was born near Assumption. I've stayed in the area all of my life."

Mrs. Gillen, who is active in the nearby Holy Trinity Church, spends about 20 minutes each day on sign work. She pulls out the letters she needs and then fits in the names in the tracks, moving things around until everyone is listed. She has two sets of letters - 300 letters in each set. Cost: $75 per set.

It's a process that has been refined and streamlined through the years. At one time, the sign was a framed sheet of metal, painted black. She lettered it with shoe polish. "I would have to put it on my back and carry it in to clean it," she said. "My husband said there has to be an easier way."

Working with a sign company, the Gillens came up with the current sign system.

When she isn't gathering names or putting up letters, Mrs. Gillen spends time with her husband Richard and their 11 grandchildren. She also likes to sew and process garden produce. "I dabble in crafts a little," she said.

Since it is a Birthday Sign, names change daily. "I do it the night before," she said, sometimes by flashlight.

If she is on vacation, names might stay in place for a couple of days. But rain, shine, sleet, or snow - the letters change.

Birthday Sign trivia: Most popular date - April 11 with 17 birthdays and three wedding anniversaries. Most common names - Miller, Smith, Gillen, Langenderfer. Birthdays go on one side; anniversaries on the other.

Not everyone, though, wants their names and ages in large letters in the Gillens' front yard. "I have a neighbor who said 'Don't you dare put my age up.' " So she didn't. "I am not out to make enemies."



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