Years ago — the year was 1992 and I was 12 — I typed up little notes and placed them in mailboxes around Quincy. It wasn’t my idea. It was a suggestion of my grandmother, Nanny Jane, and one that changed my life forever.

There was one family that I always felt so comfortable around, even though I didn’t necessarily fit in. We hung out in their big kitchen, often watching television, and it always felt peaceful seeing a family do normal things. I guess it was just nice being included somewhere. That’s where I began with my first note. The note was simple: “I DO YARD WORK.”

This simple idea got the attention of Mary Gates, whose mother needed a yard boy. Mary took me down the street, introduced us, and I started a few days later. It was May 1992 and Mrs. Gates, or Millie, said she would pay me $10 an hour. Think back to 1992. That was an enormous amount of money! And I was 12!

For a decade, I spent afternoons, weekends, and holidays helping Mrs. Gates do whatever she needed. Sometimes it was really hard work: picking blackberries out of her garden (think super-hot and very prickly!). Sometimes it was easy: “Let’s wash the car, Ryan.” Our relationship began with me as her yard boy and ended with where I am today: here and happy. Not that I always get it right, but Mrs. Gates served as my moral arc and still does today. I’m also very aware that most people don’t have someone like her. My brothers didn’t and the difference she made in my life is notable. I can’t help but wonder, “What if Millie hadn’t come into my life?” I don’t want to know.

When I told Nanny Jane I wanted to leave for college she didn’t love that idea. The truth is she knew I didn’t have the grades or the money. She suggested I stay home: “You can manage Applebee’s.” But Mrs. Gates said, “You must apply.” After many, many college rejections, I finally got my “get out town card” when Illinois College accepted my application (on academic probation).

Then I hit another big bump. Even after Pell Grant money and student loans, I didn’t come close to the money needed for tuition. Nanny Jane couldn’t get approved for loans, and there was only so much money I could borrow. One day, I mustered up the courage to ask Mrs. Gates if I could borrow the money and pay her back over the summer and holidays. After I dropped off the letter I was certain I had ruined my wonderful relationship. I just felt — not good. I was so disappointed in myself.

A few days later she called and asked me to come over. I thought, “OK, she’s such a remarkable woman, this is how a classy woman says no.” I arrived and we had our typical lunch: turkey sandwich on white bread, iced tea and several of her fabulous cookies. About halfway through our lunch, she said, “I’ve spoken with my family and I’m going to loan you the money.” It was a big deal. She didn’t exactly say it with a smile on her face. I knew and she knew: Many don’t get this chance.

Despite all the obvious differences, we had so much fun together. I have only beautiful memories of us in her yard: Being attacked by bees, and there was the time I fell off the ladder. The list goes on and on, 10 years’ worth. We became wonderful friends. She told me things — and I told her things — that we might not normally share with others. We talked about God. We talked about current events. When I didn’t have a car, she picked me up and took me to classes at QHS. She knew the power in education.

Mrs. Gates was a quiet woman. She could also be a Category 6 hurricane. She wasn’t to be trifled with. Throughout my life, she went out on a limb for me because she never stopped believing in me. I always knew she loved me with everything she had. What I know for sure: She prayed for me every, single day from the day she met me until the day she passed. I’ve never forgotten her. And I never will. When people talk about paying it forward, it’s Mrs. Gates who nudges me on the shoulder.

Each time I worked for her over the next four college years I tried to leave without her paying me for my hours. She would never let me pay her back, always saying, “Keep up the good work, Ryan.” When it came time for a summer internship, she did not hesitate to put in a good word with former Mayor Chuck Scholz. She believed I was worth a chance, and ultimately so did he.

There are many people in my life who have made a huge difference. You know who you are. Mrs. Gates is the one who believed, from the very beginning, that I could — and would — do anything I put my mind to. We all need believers. Millie was mine.

We were close until the very end. Mrs. Gates died in 2013, a few days before my husband and I won the Tony Award for the Broadway show “Pippin.” I flew from New York to Quincy and back to New York in 24 hours. I was so honored with those hours in Quincy to lift her up as she had done for me. There was no other place for me to be.

When I think of faith and her unconditional love — her capacity for goodness —that gives me such hope. You see, Millie used the Gospel for good. I’ve been thinking of her family this past week, on what would have been her 110th birthday, Nov. 18.

I am forever thankful — my heart is filled with gratitude—for her kindness and support. When we purchased the Patio Restaurant & Lounge, work began around a room in her honor. I insisted that this space honor the well-lived life she led. She loved fellowship and the great joy of coming together over a perfectly prepared dinner. So, to set the record straight: When you’re in the private dining room of the Patio, know it was inspired by so many elements of Millie’s life: She loved being around nature, her attire personified class, her gardens were her pride, she was even a waitress for a short time. Our entire relationship was centered around the meaning of life, and I can’t think of a better teacher.

As she would say, "May the Lord bless you and keep you."

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