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October 29, 2002

The approach of another Halloween always makes me think of that beloved little self-styled "witch," Perry's own Biber, who loved kids as much as she loved poetry, and that is saying something more than somewhat. Biber, whose formal name was Mrs. Russell (Belva) VanBiber, passed away a few years ago after a prolonged period of illness in one of our local nursing homes. Her legacy of laughing at the inevitable array of daily frustrations endeared her to many friends and associates, young and old. Her blood relative family was not especially large, but if you count the kiddos (and grownups) who appreciated her sly sense of humor, the head count goes up considerably.

Before the infirmities of advancing age and declining health rendered her chairfast, Biber was the one Perry people called on for impromptu programs. These could be of any length and in any venue, frequently on short notice as a fill-in for someone else who had to renege on a commitment at the last minute. Her material usually had a comedic twist but she also was capable of inducing a few tears with her "readings" about little ordinary things. I heard her many times but I cannot remember a time when she used exactly the same material repetitively.

In more recent years Biber became Perry's designated Halloween witch. Seated in the garage attached to her home, she would stir a bubbling pot containing mysterious elements and with steam swirling. Dressed in the garb of a witch and speaking in a squeaky, high-pitched voice, Biber doled out sweet treats to children from every neighborhood in Perry. Along with that and a few cackles, she would engage the young people in friendly conversation to be sure they understood the whole thing was just an act. You had to feel at ease if you spent more than a few seconds in Biber 's presence.

Along with the Halloween shenanigans, Biber and her very patient husband developed a kind of Christmas bit of business as "Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus." Russ was very supportive. He usually did not have lines to say, but he dressed in a Santa suit and Belva wore a matching outfit, what she supposed Mrs. Claus would wear. Together they received youngsters in the courthouse park on several nights before Christmas, handing out candy and receiving letters addressed to Santa. If you were a kid here in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, you remember all this.

Biber wrote many verses of homespun poetry. She loved all kinds of poems and collections of her works were published. Much of her material was inspirational, and some of her output may have given her the resolve to stay happy through years of bad health after Russ preceded her in death. So did the baby dolls she clutched in her arms as she guided her wheelchair around the nursing home. Biber was a unique Perry person and she is remembered fondly by many of those whose lives were touched by her in happier times. As Perry's designated "witch," she was truly a local institution.