When anyone in Valley Falls, Kan., (pop. 1,254) has a birthday, everyone knows about it. Every day, 365 days a year, Dianne Heinen writes the names of people celebrating birthdays on the windows of Foley’s Service Station.
“It started as a practical joke, just for kicks and giggles,” says Heinen, 58, who arrives at the station every morning at 7:30 before heading off to work at her husband’s accounting business. Even on weekends, she performs the ritual.
The tradition began 16 years ago when Jim Billings wrote “Happy Big 5-0” on his gas station window to tease friend Patty Brown about reaching the half-century mark. “We were all laughing when she pulled in,” he says.
“I was surprised,” Brown recalls.
Unbeknownst to Billings, the prank would evolve into a cherished community custom. He kept it up for two years whenever anyone wanted a birthday recognized. But when people began making daily requests, that’s when his wife, Dorothy, took over.
“People were curious as to what it was all about,” she says. “They would slow down and look at the window when going by.”
Dorothy maintained the tradition for 10 years, occasionally making a goof, such as a misspelled name. But once, she was embarrassed by her inadvertent blunder.
“The mortician called to tell me someone I had listed was dead,” she says. After that, she was more careful.
When Dorothy became ill, though, she gave up the daily ritual. “People missed it,” she says. “They had come to expect it.”
“I noticed there were no names and wondered why,” Heinen says. “I thought it was sad it had ended.” That’s when she volunteered to take over, earning her the title “Birthday Lady” in this northeast Kansas town.
Dorothy turned over her window scrubber, birthday lists, and bucket, with a reminder to Heinen to only buy heavy-duty white shoe polish.
When the list of names grew too long, Rex Foley, who owns a service station three blocks away, offered to let Heinen use his windows. “It took awhile for people to realize where it had moved,” she says.
On the windows, Heinen writes the names of local people, as well as former residents whose names have been requested. Some days she has as many as a dozen names to list, occasionally none. “I still go clean off the windows so it will be ready the next day,” she says.
Ordinarily, Heinen doesn’t include ages—but there are exceptions. Like the 90-year-old woman whose daughter brought her into town to see her name. “I try to give people like that top billing,” she says.
She also gives her mother top billing each Jan. 11. They share the same birthday.
“At Christmas, I list Baby Jesus first,” she says. To keep it interesting, she also adds George Washington on Feb. 22, Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12, America on July 4, and, on Jan. 29, Kansas, to mark its statehood anniversary. “That gives a short history lesson,” she adds.
Last winter it was so cold—11 below zero some mornings—Heinen didn’t know if the chilled shoe polish would adhere to the glass. “It was sluggish, but it worked,” she says. In the winter, she uses windshield washer fluid to remove the lettering. In summer, just water.
Roy Allen, 73, whose birthday is Halloween, says, “I think it is real nice. I look at it every morning.”
“It’s such a pleasant way to remember people,” Brown adds. “My birthday has been up there every year since it began, along with everyone else’s in town. It’s a wonderful rural custom. It’s part of our town.”