By JANET HEIM
3:42 PM EDT, September 22, 2012
William S. “Bill” Higgins Jr. was one of those people who made friends wherever he went. He lived his life with humor and a positive spirit that attracted people.
“He wanted to get to know people,” said only child Amy Higgins Ryan of Hampstead, Md.
“In airports, I’d bury my nose in a book. He’d get to know people, he’d know their life story,” said Susan “Susie” Higgins, Bill’s wife of 43 years.
Bill met people through work, church, volunteer activities, when out for dinner, in the neighborhood — anywhere people were. He is remembered for his sense of humor and love for teasing people.
Susie likened his sense of humor to that of Don Rickles.
“He could insult you without offending you,” she said.
The couple enjoyed eating out and had a standing date with friends for Friday night dinner since about 1986.
Bill would tease the waitresses that if they wanted the biggest gratuity ever, they should deliver his bill to the next table. In several cases, they did, presenting another opportunity for Bill to get to know people.
“When we’d go to a pizza place, he’d say we wanted burgers and fries,” Susie said. “He was always trying to get a rise out of people.”
Those who knew Bill learned to give it back to him, which added to his pleasure.
“Bill had one of the quickest wits of anyone I’ve ever known,” Susie said. “One of the things that attracted me to him was he made me laugh.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Bill and his family moved to Hagerstown when he was 6 for his father’s job with Coca-Cola. His sister, Marianne Rennie, was six years younger, but he fondly referred to her as his “older sister.”
Bill grew up on Mealey Parkway and graduated from North Hagerstown High School in 1961. He had fond memories of his childhood and high school years, Susie said.
He was one of the few boys who could dance — he taught himself by holding onto a doorknob while watching “American Bandstand” — so he was popular with the girls, his wife said.
Bill attended Shepherd College, but decided it wasn’t for him. He was interested in drafting and worked at Fort Ritchie’s Site R, then got a job with Danzer Metal Works in Halfway.
Susie, who was five years younger than Bill, was Marianne’s Big Sister through the YMCA service sorority they belonged to. Knowing both Susie and Bill were no longer in relationships with other people, Marianne told her brother to go to Red’s Twin Kiss to see Susie, which he did that night.
It was August 1966, right before Susie was headed back to West Virginia University for her sophomore year, where she was studying to be a pharmacist.
“He said, ‘When are you going to go out with me?’ I said, ‘When are you gonna ask me out?’ We went out the next day and that was it,” Susie said.
Bill asked Susie’s parents if he could drive their only child back to Morgantown, and they gave their permission.
He then asked Susie if he could come back the next weekend, the beginning of a four-year long-distance courtship that lasted until their marriage in August 1969. Susie graduated from pharmacy school in 1970.
Not long after they married, Bill took the job with Danzer, a sheet-metal fabrication company. Despite Susie’s uncertainty about the job change, Bill worked his way up to vice president/general manager in his 25-year career there.
He later worked for other businesses, using his expertise in drafting intricate designs of dust-collecting systems for large companies.
About four years ago, Bill learned that he had ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. It had been ruled out two years before, but he had since developed other symptoms that confirmed the disease, which causes a loss of muscle function.
Bill’s fears of the disease were eased after he read “Prayers and Promises,” a book given to him by another ALS patient. In the book’s margins, Bill wrote tributes about each family member that they weren’t allowed to see until after his death.
His obituary was written in recognition of relationships and to make people laugh, not mourn.
“That book changed Bill’s perspective and attitude about what he was getting ready to face. He wasn’t afraid of dying. ... We decided Bill was supposed to show people how to live while they were dying,” Susie said.
Bill stayed involved in church and volunteer activities as long as he physically could. Going out for dinner, especially the tradition of Friday dinners with friends, meant quite a production of loading him into the ramp van and ensuring that his breathing machine always had an electrical supply.
“He didn’t let the diagnosis define him or the disease define him,” Amy said.
Bill shared that his life had been filled with many good things and that had he lived longer, he would have just had more of those good things. He had no regrets, although he would have liked to have more time to help raise his two grandchildren, Connor and Brynn Ryan, Amy said.
Bill died on a Sunday, as he had hoped. The family threw a 69-1/2-year birthday party for him, as well as an “Awake Wake” complete with live Irish music that Bill loved, which was also played at his memorial service.
There were things in the Higgins’ life that they couldn’t explain, but now look back on as providential. They had happily lived in their one-story 1970s-era Spring Valley home for 35 years.
While out driving around in a newer neighborhood off Longmeadow Road, Bill suggested driving farther back into the development. They toured the model home and in a little more than six weeks, had moved into a new home in Paradise Heights.
Susie said that as Bill’s ALS progressed, they would have had to move from their Spring Valley home, but the wider doorways of their new home allowed him to stay at home until his death.
Amy wondered why she became an occupational therapist, but her training helped ease decisions to be made as the disease progressed.
“She was able to guide us every step of the way. She knew what equipment he needed and could talk to the caregivers. She had things in place ahead of time,” Susie said.
The positive “can-do” attitude of the “small, but tight” family allowed for a trip to Disney World two years ago and a trip to Ocean City, Md., last year. Amy planned the beach trip so Bill could once again experience favorite restaurants and the boardwalk.
The trip required a U-Haul to move Bill’s hospital bed, lift chair and other equipment, while a handicapped beach wheelchair allowed Bill to enjoy the beach one last time.
“We have many fond memories from there,” Marianne said.
With each step, Amy and Bill problem-solved together to find solutions that worked for him. Susie is hearing-impaired and it took a complex system of alarms and lights to wake her in the middle of night if Bill needed her.
“They don’t make things for people with ALS who have deaf spouses. It made us all laugh at times,” Susie said.
Bill’s Christian faith was a rock throughout his life. He was a member at Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown for 50 years and a member at First Christian Church since 2000.
“He was Christian. He believed strongly there was life after death,” Susie said.
“I think he inspired a lot of people because of his constant faith and positive attitude,” Marianne said.
Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about William S. Higgins Jr., who died Sept. 9 at the age of 69. His obituary was published in the Sept. 11 and 12 editions of The Herald-Mail.
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