People who knew Billy Ray Salmon talk about his love and his wit — about a man who spoke little and made it count when he did.
They tell stories about things he did that made them laugh, and they laugh to themselves about stories they aren’t sure if they should tell.
No one remembers anyone not liking him, and that is the first thing most people will say.
Salmon, who died April 15 at age 88, was known for giving, whether it was candy, his time or just a hard time.
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A word that comes up often is “ornery.”
Retired local Realtor Ruth Jarrett remembers a property sale they worked on together. They forgot to take the tax out at the closing, and Jarrett ended up paying back the $14 to the buyer when the tax bill came.
“I called up Billy Ray, and I said, ‘Billy Ray, I went over and paid that,’ and I said, ‘I want my $7 back.’ He said, ‘Well, you’ll never get it from me.’
“Every time I’d see him, I’d say, ‘You owe me $7,’ and he’d say, ‘Never gonna pay that.’ And one time I went in the office, and it was on my desk in an envelope — two years later.”
Salmon’s granddaughter, Shelli Altemeyer, remembered when a fire broke out in her kitchen when he was visiting her home in Atlanta. When Salmon came down to see what the fuss was, the firefighters tried to usher him out of the house.
“He pulls up a bar stool and sits down and starts haggling with the firemen,” Altemeyer said. “‘Well, you guys look much different from all the fireman calendars that all the girls are buying,’ and on and on.”
“They kept saying, ‘Sir, you have to leave,’ and he would just haggle and haggle at them,” she said. “It was a pretty serious fire, and he just kept, just breezing right along.”
Salmon was a regular visitor to Brown County Treasurer Mary Smith’s office. When she was newly elected, he showed up with a nameplate and claimed a desk for himself.
After that, “We always knew Tuesday was Billy Ray Day,” Smith said.
“He would bring those Lifesaver mints in, and we’d have our plant up there on the table, and he’d dump all of his trash into the plant because it annoyed Andi (Bond). One day, he just brought this huge bag full of the wrappers and dumped it into the plant,” Smith said.
“He was just a sweet old man.
“‘Ornery,’ for sure, is the word.”
Keeping them in line
Salmon became a grandfather figure Smith could turn to.
“Usually it would be, ‘You just don’t need to worry about what they think,’” she said.
As a girl, now-Brown County Commissioner Diana Biddle remembers her mother letting her stay at Salmon’s real estate office and spending hours with him and “the lady in his life,” Madalyn Boruff.
“He was one of those people where I knew — him and Madalyn both — that I knew if I was in trouble and felt like I couldn’t go to my parents, I knew I could go to them,” Biddle said.
Looking toward the spot at the end of the head table where Salmon sat to record meetings, commissioners President Dave Anderson remembered how Salmon sat quietly and took everything in.
However, Salmon reprimanded him after one meeting.
“I got a little annoyed at (former county commissioner) John (Kennard) and spoke out a little harshly, maybe a little more so than I should have, and Billy came over after the meeting and said, ‘Like to see you guys get along now,’” Anderson said.
“He’d give you a finger shake,” Anderson said, imitating the motion.
“He was probably one of the nicest, greatest senses of humor, and knew where everybody in this county was buried, and why they were buried,” Kennard said. “He always paid attention; he always listened.”
But Salmon would usually wait until after a meeting to call out one of the commissioners.
“You know, I’d see him here in the halls or hanging around the treasurer’s office, and he would make a comment about, ‘Well, this is what you were talking about,’ or ‘This is what you were saying,’” Kennard said. “You had to be on your toes with him, that’s all there is to it.”
In 2012, in recognition of his 30 years of doing just that, the commissioners renamed the meeting room in the County Office Building the Salmon Room.
Salmon started coming to commissioners meetings and recording them after David Critser took his seat as a commissioner in 1981, when they still met in a small room in the courthouse. Even after the county began recording them, Salmon kept coming and sitting at the head table. He even had a name card.
“But he never interrupted or gave a comment or anything like that; he was just there,” Critser said.
Amy Kelso met Salmon when she started attending meetings as a local resident. She later was elected commissioner.
Salmon would tease her, holding up the Brown County Democrat — one of the three or four papers he read each day — and saying, “I don’t see your name in here; you must be behaving yourself.”
Though they often disagreed or got under one another’s skin — sometimes on purpose — that never meant they could not get along.
“We both held the perspective that, we’re a community 365 days out of the year,” Kelso said. “And I think it’s a lesson that we need now and to never let go of.”
A trusted friend
Andy Rogers was friends with Salmon for decades — long enough that he’s not sure how they first met. They often worked together in real estate and shared a common connection in being from Bloomington, as well as having served in the military.
Rogers was a World War II Navy veteran and active in the American Legion and veterans activities.
The two had a falling out in the recent past, but Rogers was able to see Salmon one last time the day before he died.
“He was just one of those kind of people. He was a character; you can’t replace people like that,” Rogers said.
Rick Patrick met Salmon around 2005, shortly before Boruff died of leukemia.
He said he remembers sitting with him on his porch and Salmon hollering and waving at everyone who passed. If you didn’t wave back, you were in trouble, but if you waved back the next day, all was forgiven, Patrick said.
Sometimes, he would get into a bit of a fighting mood, Patrick said.
“He’d say, ‘Go outside and practice falling down, and then I’ll get to you.’
“You never were 100 percent sure if he was joking or not,” Patrick said. “He’d get that little dig in there.”
Salmon liked to add an “e” to the ends of words and names. He called Patrick’s wife, Dena, “Denie,” and invited them over for “some dead chickie” for dinner.
Dena Patrick met Salmon when she moved into the neighborhood. She was passing by one day, and Salmon and Madalyn invited her onto their porch.
“They said, ‘Hey, you look like you got a story. Come on up here and sit down,’” she said. “It got to be an everyday thing. Billy was kind of like a dad to me the last 12 years.”
“His biggest joke was, I would ask, ‘Billy, are you in the witness protection program?’ and he’d say, ‘Well, I’m in the witless protection program.’”
Dr. Tim Alward’s office was one of Salmon’s regular hangouts. He would sit for hours in the waiting room, entertaining patients and receptionist Tammy Jaynes.
He never took the easy route for comedy.
“He didn’t like vulgarity. He never used it,” Alward said.
“He wouldn’t complain much, and he would inject humor into almost everything,” Alward said. “He was diplomatic and well-informed.”
Diplomatic, in the sense of the old definition, Rick Patrick said: “A diplomat is somebody who could tell you to go to hell and make you look forward to the trip, and that was pretty much him,” Patrick said.
Everything he gave
Salmon often brought lunch with him to Alward’s office — for everyone.
“He didn’t have a lot to give in terms of money, but he would do those little things,” Alward said.
He also brought bags of candy to hand out at commissioners meetings and bags of cookies to the treasurer’s office.
“He had a great big tub of candy at his back door, and every time you’d come to visit him or leave, he’d grab a handful of candy and give it to you — or he’d have it in his pocket,” Altemeyer said.
And Salmon loved Halloween.
“I would have to say that some of my best memories are of his annual Halloween parties,” Smith said.
Salmon kept a tabulation each year of how many trick-or-treaters came to his door, and he would know how much it was up or down from year to year.
Smith said Salmon’s love for his family always stood out.
“He never missed a birthday party,” Altemeyer said. “He spent the night with us every Christmas Eve.”
From those visits, Altemeyer said he remembers the police scanner that Salmon always had on and the spittoon that he would bring with him — though she still isn’t certain if he brought the spittoon to use or just to be “ornery.”
There is no doubt he loved to entertain those he cared for.
“It was really cool, as a granddaughter, to go to the local parades, and he was the Shriner clown,” Altemeyer said. “And it was so cool to be with your friends and have the clown come up and do the entertainment, and I’d be like, ‘That’s my grandpa.’”
Salmon’s son, Glen, said he and his brothers, Ray and Barry, took their love of the outdoors from their dad. While the other kids their age were inside, starting at age 3 or 4, those boys were at Lake Lemon.
A love of the outdoors wasn’t the only thing he passed to his sons.
“The last several years, when I was spending a lot more time with Dad, I realized how much of his nuances, his speaking, his wit, his humor have become very much a part of me,” Glen Salmon said.
His father found a way to connect with all different kinds of people and formed bonds everywhere he went.
Though he knows a lot of people miss him — himself included — he chooses to focus on the full life his father lived, the differences he made and the lives he touched in different ways.
“What else do we want out of this life?” Glen Salmon said.
“We’re not here forever. We’re here as long as the good Lord lets us be here, and if you can look back and think you made a difference on this world, well — rest in peace, Billy Ray, and thank you for all you gave me.”
A full obituary appears on page A2.
Salmon’s family asks that people who plan to attend his service bring a story, in writing, about him, for a book they are putting together for the family.