There is no question that part of the driving force behind the southern town of Auburn, Alabama is the university. Known nationally for its prestige, its phenomenal traditions, its athletics, and, most importantly, its people. The residents of this town, both those college affiliated and those not, are truly some of the most outstanding humans on the planet. The way that this city seems to be a hub for genuine, kind people is truly something magical. Since officially joining the city of Auburn as a college student a year and some odd months ago, I’ve been longing to write an article about the unique atmosphere and makeup of the people in this town. After deliberating on an effective way to capture and share its essence, I'm thinking of someone I encountered that gave me the perfect idea.
You know those people you meet who instantly make you feel good about life? Something about their smile, their voice or the look in their eyes just instantly makes you feel happy. Their joy is radiant and you cannot help but to be infected by it. Now, place yourself on the campus transportation system, a place filled with headphone filled ears, somber faces heading to class and usually awkward silence. These typically overcrowded, ice-cold buses are the last place you’d expect to find that type of joy, but enter into the scene AJ Billingslea and that’s where the story changes.
Adolphis James Billingslea is the epitome of the person I mentioned earlier. Mr. Billingslea is a driver for the university transit system and completely embodies the Auburn spirit and the type of people that make up this town. He’s known for his “no student left behind” policy and his ever consistent “good morning/afternoon sir/ma’am.” I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a conversation Mr. Billinglsea was having with another student one afternoon on the transit that sparked my interest in him. Apparently, Mr. Billingslea frequently makes an extra stop for a woman walking to work so that her commute isn't as long- even though this act of kindness had been frowned upon by the transit coordinator. I just had to know more about this special man. One afternoon I climbed on the transit, and because it just so happened to be time for a shift change, so did AJ. In hopes to learn more about him, and thus start investigating the people that make up such a vital part of this university, I did an on-the-fly interview. I found that he only further proved my idea that the Auburn men and women are some of the best on the planet, and I would like for you now to take this transit ride with me so that you could see this too.
First, let's get some background. Mr. Billingslea, AJ for short because his mother thought his name was too hard for others to pronounce, was born and raised in the small town of Lanett, Alabama. He is the oldest of two children and came to work in Auburn in the 80s because of the bigger job market that Auburn possessed over Lannett. He has been working with the transit system for five years now. Mr. Billingslea and I connected over the fact that we both grew up in small towns (he actually knew where Roanoke was!) and briefly talked about the those small communities and how they differed vastly from the atmosphere here at Auburn. I then started to badger him with questions.
What is your favorite part about working here in the transit system?
Mr. Billsinglsea informs me that we have to be silent until the route starts, because he cannot miss his call off and must start on time. After a stream of numbers flow from the microphone system on the bus, the transit slowly pulls from the loading dock. He then tells me that he loves dealing with the public. He always has, and he loves speaking with so many different people on such a consistent basis. It's something that brings him joy daily. He said the job here is the perfect combination of public service and interacting with others.
Most drivers don’t make such a conscious effort to pick up students and assure that no one is left behind. Why do you take such special care to stop for everyone and what made you first start doing that?
“I’ve just always been that way.” To clarify what I'm talking about, I've once had AJ actually pull up to my car where I was parked so that I wouldn't have to walk 50 yards to the transit stop. I've also been on the bus with Mr. Billingslea and witnessed him wait and wait for students that might possibly need on his route. While we covered the first leg of the Park and Ride route he began to explain to me that this behavior was partly due to his parental instinct. He remembers his daughter going to get her education and he knows the effort we put in, and wants to match it for us. Mr. Billingslea never had anything short of a smile the entire ride, but I couldn’t help but notice the way smile changed, and his face lit up when speaking of his mother. She was a teacher and stressed the importance of education. He knows what a task higher education is and wants to make it as easy for us as possible, even if what he does is just a small way to do so.
Again reminiscing on his hometown, he marveled at the size of this community. He knows, and has experienced, that sometimes people won’t always reciprocate his energy. Sometimes they don’t even smile back, but he wants to do all that he can to help as many people as he can. He said, “you guys are my living, and I want to help you all for helping me.” Mr. Billingslea told me he gets in trouble frequently for his tardiness due to waiting on students and for leaving no one behind. He actually got in trouble a few years ago for letting too many students on the transit at one time, but he said it was worth it. He couldn’t find it in his heart to leave them. Kindness has always been important to him and his thick head doesn’t plan on changing anytime soon. He did tell me that the new transit director loves his personality and encourages him to keep it up.
You have a wonderful disposition, how do you keep that up?
For the first time all ride, his lips were no longer forming a smile. Instead, they pursued together in deep thought. I had stumped him. “Well everyday I do something silly as my vitamin.” He then started to describe his morning routine, which begins with waking up and saying hello to his cats. The best explanation he could give me was that he was always ready for the day from the start. He doesn’t encounter a stranger, he’s always loved to work, but he could never really answer why. A tad defeated he said, “I know I’m not answering your question, but this is just who I am.” But, that answer was really the best one yet. He went on to say that he truly enjoys life and feels good most of the time. He’s happy to have a job, he’s happy to be alive. If he could credit his joy to one thing he’d say his parents and their relationship. They were very good to him and that helps him be as happy as he is. He just has never really seen a reason to be mad.
From here, the "interview feel" ended and we just continued talking. I got so wrapped up in his words I forgot to write them down. We talked a little about animals, about football- which he isn't so crazy about- and his views of the world. They are so sweet and wholesome. The last thing I remember us talking about was his strong distaste for ugly. He doesn’t understand why the world is so full of fighting and killing, but he doesn’t care to have that negativity or focus on that in his life. I don't see how I could've disagreed.
You see, it is people like AJ that keep this world turning. It is people like AJ that make Auburn so special. Apparently, this was the first time AJ had ever been interviewed and it was really the first time I had interviewed someone too. Today, AJ and I both traveled out of our comfort zone, yet I've never felt so comfortable. Because even when AJ didn’t feel like he was answering me the way he should be, he was actually giving me, and any other student he encounters on the transit, exactly what we need- hope that there are still genuinely good people in this world.