November 6, 2007

It's only temporary

At the Bell Air Motel south of Redmond on Highway 97, nearly every guest said the same thing upon their arrival.

"I'll be here for about a week. Maybe two."

Many meant it. The construction workers in town for a single job, the truckers with a long layover between shipments, they stayed their week or two and moved on. But for others, two weeks became two months, then a year, and often more. For those who stayed, the Bell Air became home and owner Carol Williams became a mother of sorts.

Last month, Williams died following a year-long struggle against colon cancer. She was 62 years old. The fate of the motel is uncertain: Tinya Profitt, Williams' daughter, said her mother's longtime companion, Jack Wright, will continue running the place until the family comes to a decision. For some residents of the motel, Williams death means not only the potential loss of their home, but the loss of a close and trusted friend.

Jerry Howard is in his mid-60s, a slender man permanently attached to the end of an oxygen hose and living off Social Security. A three-and-a-half year resident of the motel, his road to the Bell Air began in New Mexico in 2001, when the business he owned collapsed. He came to Oregon to try to get back on his feet, moving in with his older sister and becoming her primary caregiver as her health declined. When his sister died, he had nowhere to go, and, he assumed, only a few months to live himself.

When Howard arrived at the Bell Air, he was essentially destitute. He explained his situation to Williams, and she agreed to put him up for free as they worked through the process of getting him signed up for Social Security.

"She was a godsend for me," Howard said. "Without her help, I'd have been out on the street, I'd have been dead. I wouldn't have survived."

According to her daughter, generosity was a common thread during the 20-plus years Williams' ran the motel. A college student when her mother bought the place, Profitt often spent her holiday breaks doting after the motel's residents, delivering plates of food to those her mother felt could use a homecooked meal. On Labor Day or the Fourth of July, she'd stage barbecues around the fish pond behind the motel; she also ran a van shuttle of sorts for residents needing to buy groceries or visit a doctor.

The close relationship between Williams and the tenants was sometimes a sore point for Profitt's younger sister, Kathleen, who was still very young when the family bought the motel.

"There was never a Thanksgiving dinner or a Christmas dinner when there wasn't Mr. Will, and the guy from number so-and-so, and some other guy," Profitt said. "She'd get pissed off because she just wanted family for a change. She wanted a normal family dinner, and it just wasn't going to happen."

Mr. Will was Jack Will, the most senior of all motel residents with more than 18 years at the Bell Air. Now living in an adult foster home in Redmond, Will moved out just a few days before Williams died. Told how Kathleen resented him, Will laughed.

"Well, Kathleen has matured since then," he said. "When I first came there, Kathleen was about 15 years old, and 15 year old girls don't always get along with their mom that well."

Will said he first came to the motel thinking he'd only be there a week or two. After looking at several apartments, he came to the conclusion that the motel was the best fit for him - no furniture to buy, only one bill to pay, and plenty of people around to visit with and help out in a pinch. After a time, Will was more or less part of the family, eating dinner with the proprietors and looking after the motel for them when they'd go out of town.

Profitt said sometimes her mother had to resort to trickery to be charitable with her tenants.

"She was always going to the thrift stores," she said. "She'd go to the thrift stores and if she thought one of the guys around here was looking a little shabby, she'd get a few things and take it up to him and say, 'Oh, this guy who lived here before left these behind, they're all washed up now, probably about your size'."

Wright said Williams' thrift store shopping sprees went into overdrive when a family with children would stay at the motel - even now, there are boxes full of small toys and children's clothes she bought up years ago to give away to her youngest tenants.

"These families, they'd move in with everything they owned in two bags and by the time they left, they needed a U-Haul," Wright said. "She went nuts over kids."

Will and Howard said the residents didn't see much of Williams in her last year, but when they did they went out of their way to pay her back for the generosity she exhibited over the years, taking her out to lunch when she was feeling well or ferrying her into Redmond for chemotherapy sessions.

Howard had borrowed the motel van to go buy groceries one day in late summer when he found himself standing in front of a large display of avocados. Williams loved avocados, and like his sister some years earlier, she still craved her favorite foods even though she could hardly eat. Howard decided to stock up.

"I knew she couldn't eat it, but she could just get a bit of the taste in her mouth," he said. "I got her an avocado and a cake with blueberries on it. I dropped them off with her, Jack was sitting there, and she had this big, bright look on her face. At least she got to taste it, even if she couldn't eat it."

According to Howard, he never would have imagined he'd be living in a motel, and admits it's a little unorthodox. His nephew has invited him to live with him, but Rinn turned him down - the people at the Bell Air, he said, have made it home for him.

"The kind of people that come in are great people," Howard said. "Mostly people who are down on their luck, but it's a temporary thing for them. You meet people from all walks of life out here. I can't say I've loved everybody that was here, but I've enjoyed most of the people I've met. Especially Jack and Carol. She really took a lot of pride in this place."

-- story by Scott Hammers

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