PIERRE — Billie greets old friends with beaming smiles and hugs. One even drops off a vase of flowers. These moments are quick, though, as Billie moves throughout Bob’s Lounge. She finds her spot at the bar — the bar maid’s area marked off with two gold railings — and yells out orders of beer and mixed drinks.
“Billie, it’s your birthday, you shouldn’t be working,” a customer yells.
“I love my job,” she said with a smile and shake of the hips.
Billie — whose real name is Avrilla Schlaak — celebrated her 78th birthday on Monday and has been a bar maiden, or cocktail waitress as she calls it, nearly 58 years. Her employer, Bob’s, threw her a birthday party Wednesday; she is as much a part of the tavern as the four-leaf clover painted on the front of the building.
“Bob’s Lounge is her home,” said David Kelley, owner of the bar. “People come back from 30 years ago and ask about Billie.”
Billie began working at Bob’s, 114 W. Dakota Ave. in Pierre, in 1953. She spent some time working at Spur’s in Fort Pierre and the Holiday Inn — now the Iron Horse in Pierre — as a waitress and bartender, but came back to Bob’s at the request of the late owner, Bob Marso. That was 30 years ago.
“I am lucky that I’ve never had to search for a job,” she said. “I’ve never had a desire to change jobs.”
She has four children with Dick Schlaak, her husband of 56 years. Her son, Jay Schlaak, said that although his mom worked nights growing up, she would take her kids to the beach before going to work.
“It tears me up,” Jay Schlaak said of the crowded bar Wednesday, full for his mother’s party.
With many years of experience, the work is natural. She remembers faces with drink orders and knows to greet people shortly after they sit down. She admits to handling crowded bars better than slow nights. Unruly and intoxicated people don’t faze her.
“She can take a lot of crap,” said Megan Bertsch, a bartender at Bob’s. “She’s been doing this for so long and because this is such a tough job it says a lot about her character.”
What keeps her going are the people, especially the crowd at Bob’s, and the bonds she forms with customers, whether it’s the once-a-week or once-a-year patron. The birthday party was the idea of a customer and the employees put it together.
“She loves what she does and you can tell,” said Cheryl Stone, of Pierre. “She cares about her customers.”
Someday she’ll have to retire, she recognizes, and she isn’t sure what will happen next. Now, there are still drinks for people to serve. Billie will do it because it’s what she knows, what she loves.
“She is our family,” said Krystal Simons, a bartender at Bob’s. “She’s the mama.”