Longtime VaHi Resident billie jo Passes

in-memoriam-kaarsenMother, Teacher, Artist, Poet, Virginia-Highland Activist

July 31, 1936 – July 7, 2014

By: Jack White, VHCA President

Longtime Virginia-Highland resident billie jo – she spelled her name with all lowercase letters and had legally changed it years ago to just ‘billie jo’ – passed away early this month following a battle with cancer.

billie jo was a neighborhood activist and VHCA board member who tirelessly addressed quality of life issues in the neighborhood, especially along St. Charles and Greenwood avenues. Those streets had a very different look in the 80’s and 90’s than they do today; prostitution and drug dealing were not hard to spot. billie jo confronted the problems both personally – by challenging those engaged – and systematically, by pressuring APD. Today we take crime reporting and police cooperation with neighborhoods for granted; neither was a normal practice when billie jo arrived.  Her unyielding persistence on both issues had a lot to do with changing the culture between law enforcement and Atlanta’s intown communities.

When APD declined to provide statistical reports, billie jo repeatedly visited the Zone 6 offices and demanded to see them; then she compiled reports herself and distributed them to residents. An embarrassed police force finally took over the job and started providing them at VHCA meetings, a practice that is routine today. Inside the community, she rallied and organized residents to pressure mayors and zone commanders for more active and community-oriented policing, themes that also sound quite familiar now but were then new and different. The public safety framework she initiated is reflected throughout today’s approaches.

billie jo’s other passions were art – painting, drawing, and tile mosaics (a love she shared with her friend and fellow VaHi resident Stephanie Coffin and other current practitioners) and parks; billlie jo never met a tree she didn’t love and she fought hard for the city to take its green spaces seriously, a particular challenge as the city slashed its recreational funding in the 1990’s. The civic association recognized her wide-ranging contributions with a presentation at its 2006 annual general meeting.

billie jo had a lot of faith in people and a sense of optimism that did not fade or falter during her illness. That confidence and her own personal warmth ensured that even those with whom she disagreed about policies liked her very much, as we all did.

billie jo (seated) watches while finishing touches are put on Stephanie Coffin's 843 Virginia Circle tile piece.

billie jo (seated) watches while finishing touches are put on Stephanie Coffin’s 843 Virginia Circle tile piece. Photo credit: Tom Coffin.

Stephanie Coffin tells the following story that goes a long way in capturing billie jo’s essence:

“I did a tile piece called Three Sisters for the homeowners at 843 Virginia Circle (so named because of the three sisters who lived there). It was a chilly December day when I went to finish the piece, and I asked BJ if she wanted to come along, which she was thrilled to do. We were served sparkling apple cider in plastic champagne glasses. BJ and the girls absolutely loved being a part of the piece’s “official” installation. BJ was so willing to do anything which is one of the reasons she was so dear to me.”

billie jo will be greatly missed. There will be a more formal remembrance in her honor at John Howell Park this fall.

billie jo’s family provided the following information:

Born to Joe B. and Bertha Mae Scott in Americus, Georgia, billie jo grew up in the Jacksonville, Florida area and graduated from Duncan Fletcher High School in 1954. She went on to attend Brenau College in Gainesville, Georgia where she graduated in 1958. At Brenau she held several student government positions in addition to the presidency of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority her senior year. There she met her husband of 18 years, Steven Blihovde of Passaic, New Jersey, an engineering student at Georgia Tech. When he transferred to Clemson University, the two settled in the Greenville area and had two children, Elizabeth Dawn and Steven Erik.

Coming from a long line of educators (her mother taught school with Miss Lillian Carter) billie jo taught elementary school for many years in Clemson and Greenville. Always an advocate for the neglected and underprivileged, she worked passionately and tirelessly for a long list of social and political causes that included Project Head Start, the George McGovern campaign, the Project Hope Drug Abuse Center and the Women’s Stockade.

After her husband’s premature death in 1976, billie jo retired from teaching to pursue a second career in interior design. A woman ahead of her time, she purchased an old warehouse in downtown Greenville’s artists’ district where her new business thrived for 8 years. During this period she also taught interior design at Greenville Technical College and performed in local theatre productions, supported the local ballet and became an early member of the coalition that began the revival of the city’s downtown area.

In 1984 she moved back to the Jacksonville Beach area to be closer to her aging parents; there she continued her artistic and design career. This led to a new career focused on meeting the needs of senior citizens and keeping their lives relevant and active, a turn that brought her back to the Atlanta area, where she became the director of the Duluth Senior Center for Activities. She settled in her beloved Virginia-Highland and became an active member of the VHCA.

From the doors of City Hall to local parks and meetings, billie jo was a relentless force pushing for new street lights, a stronger and more visible police presence, and improved pedestrian crossings and stop signs. During this period she discovered a new passion for creating folk art from reclaimed and abandoned object d’art. Her condominium on St. Charles Avenue offered an ever-changing sunny and inspiring display for passersby to admire. She always found great inspiration from her favorite aunt and longtime Virginia-Highland resident, the late Marguerite Bridges, who was instrumental in breathing life back into the languishing Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park as a Chamber of Commerce member in the sixties.

billie jo passed away last week after a struggle with cancer, one that she faced with her usual humor, determination, grace, and peace. She will be remembered as an unrelenting advocate for the quality of life of Virginia-Highland’s residents, and particularly for her tireless efforts with Trees Atlanta in helping to keep the community shady and green.

billie jo is survived by her daughter Elizabeth Riordan, her husband David of Hickory Flat, Georgia and her son Erik Blihovde and his wife Suzanne and two grandchildren Nathaniel and Ryan of Elk Grove, California.

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