Mayor of Washington Street Alice Hebler is taking care of business

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 27, 2011

Alice Hebler is called The Mayor of Washington Street. This is the last in a series about the Vicksburg merchant.

It was about two years ago, after the death of longtime Vicksburg merchant Ellis Koury, that Alice Hebler got a call from Frances Koury, Ellis’ wife.

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He had been down here, on Washington Street, forever, Alice said, and he was called the Mayor because he was the type, when you opened your business, “He was the first one to welcome you. He was there to help you with advice — some you took, some you didn’t — but most of the time he had wonderful advice for you. He knew everybody down here and what was going on. He walked the streets a lot.”

When Mrs. Koury called, she said, “Alice, I have to tell you something. Before Ellis died, he thought and thought and thought of who could take his place as Mayor of Washington Street, and he said, ‘Alice is the only person who can take my place.’”

Alice told her, “I’ll never be able to replace him, but I’ll do my darndest to try.”

So what does she do?

“I haven’t figured it out yet,” Alice said. “There aren’t any real duties. I try to make sure everybody is OK down here. We’re family, we’re team players. We need to stick together. I was blessed that I got to be here when the Abrahams, Klauses and the Kourys and others were here. We all cling together and help each other.”

Paper Plus was also called Hebler’s Store, for Alice had her children, Teresa and John, working there after school, “which was good and bad,” Alice said. “I can’t tell you how many times Teresa was fired, or how many times she quit. She’d quit me and go to work at the pizza place and mop greasy floors until 2 in the morning and then beg for her job back …. and then I’d hire some student who wouldn’t show up because, they’d say, ‘I forgot I had cheerleading practice.’”

Alice admits that she was probably too hard on Teresa at times, but she now has a real job at University Medical Center in Jackson and credits her tasks at Paper Plus with preparing her for future work, as far as getting along with the public.

There were rewards. Alice would let the children go to Burger Village, right down the street, where John had a piece of chocolate cake every day. When he made straight A’s on his report card, Elise Doyle gave him a whole cake that he wasn’t required to share.

At age 12, John died from an accidental gunshot. A week after his death, Mrs. Doyle brought chocolate cake to Alice with instructions to take it to John’s Sunday school class and have a party. Alice didn’t think she could do it, couldn’t face John’s friends, but Elise insisted, said God had said it was to be done. The next Sunday, after talking with the class teacher, Alice showed up with the cake and drinks, “even though everybody thought I was crazy.” But, when the youngsters saw that Alice was all right, one by one they told her what John had meant to them, “so that, instead of remembering him as the bad little boy who was suspended from school, who spent Saturdays in detention, I found out how compassionate he was, how friendly he was, how he took in people and said, ‘Come sit with me.’”

The next morning, Alice told Elise Doyle what a beautiful experience it was, and Elise explained, “That’s why God told me to make that cake.”

It was after John’s death that “The Tuesday Night Girls” came into being. It began in an effort to get Alice’s husband, Martin, out of the house, for he just sat and mourned. Alice’s female friends would come to her house every Tuesday night, calling it the girls’ night out and telling Martin he had to leave — so he’d go to the Knights of Columbus building.

“That worked. We got him out of the house,” Alice said. “But then I started getting sick of everybody coming to my house, and I had to clean and everything, so we started going to Harrah’s.”

They would eat, pool their money and play the slots, screaming if they hit anything and dividing any money that was won. They were such regulars they were featured on an ad for the casino. Harrah’s closed, so now the girls — Dette Vedros, Becky Cook, Debbie Beasley, Jaa Antoine, Brenda McDivitt and Alice — go to Ameristar every Tuesday, and each May they go to Gulf Shores.

Alice has vivid, loving memories of her parents, describing her mother as “shy, kind and Christian. She said when you get older you get a wisdom and a peace in your soul. Mother was my strength.”

When her mother passed away in her 80s, just before Thanksgiving, she had just had her hair fixed, had on a new housecoat, was sitting in a chair when she said she didn’t feel quite right and fell over. She was dead. Earlier, Alice said, she had been unhappy because not everyone was coming for Thanksgiving — “But she made sure they were all there.”

Alice’s father had already passed away. She was the last one to talk to him, and he gave her instructions on this and that, on how to take care of her mother. Alice sat beside his bed a little longer, and when “Matlock” came on TV he asked her how long she was going to stay, and she said, “Oh, I don’t know. Why?” And he said it was his favorite TV show and he wanted to watch it. He told her, when she tried to talk, “Hush, you know I’m going to die.” And Alice responded, “All right, if you insist on dying, would you please write down your spaghetti sauce recipe?” But, he told her, “Hell no, I’m going to die with it in my head.”

She said, “OK,” kissed him on the forehead and started to leave the room when he said, “Hey, Short and Squatty — that’s what he called me — come back.” She went back to his bedside, and he told her the secret to his spaghetti sauce: “The reason it’s better than your mama’s is you throw everything in that big pot and you cook it all day long.” Alice said her mother’s was a “quickie” sauce. Her daddy was famous for his. The last thing he did was tell his secret to Alice. He died during the night.

Alice remembers the beauty and the humor in situations that might otherwise be sad. As for herself, she said, “I’ve been places, I’ve done things — don’t mourn me. When I get to Heaven, I don’t want to come back. I’ve served my time down here.”

One day, she recalls, she got a call from Father P.J. Curley, pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church.

One of the blue‑haired ladies of the church had asked him to pray for Alice in a time of bereavement. Alice told him, “Father, I’m a member of your parish,” and he asked, “Then why don’t I know you?” She admitted that she had been lax in attending and he urged her to show up and give it a try.

“So the next Sunday I went, and went up to him and said, ‘Father, I’m Alice Hebler,’” and he said, “Oh God, Oh God, please don’t let the roof fall in,” and they’ve been friends ever since.

Alice remembers lighthearted happenings, says she can talk all day and never shut up: “You can see people trying to get out of here. They want me to shut up,” and though she has stories to tell, she also has a basic philosophy: “When you wake up in the morning, you have the choice to be happy or not — and that is so simple. So when you wake up, you decide. You can lie in bed and you can whine and feel sorry for yourself, or you can say look at what I’ve got.”

She tries not to be unhappy, and such episodes are few and far between, for that’s when she stays home, “and you won’t see me that way.”

“I grew up downtown,” she said, “running the streets,” and she figures the statute of limitations has expired on her childish activities.

“I never thought I’d be running a business downtown,” she said.

Or be Mayor of Washington Street.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.