Andrew Dys

It's never too early for 'Happy Birthday'

Darkness is split by the ringing telephone. On the other end, a few minutes after 5 a.m., is probably the only person who would call so early and sing "Happy Birthday."

Yvonne Cherry starts another day.

"I get up and sing to somebody," Cherry said. "God gets the glory. I just make the calls."

She has no phone list. No address book. No computer.

Every number is stored in her head.

Cherry has made countless birthday calls over the years. She calls people from her home church, Mount Do-Well Baptist Church, or people from other churches she has attended over the years. But she also calls anybody she's met in the past 30 years whose birthday she has found out about. Preachers, teachers and insurance agents like Rock Hill's Bill Berry.

"Sunday was my turn," said the Rev. Archie Stover, who came to Rock Hill 23 years ago.

Every year on July 30, 5 a.m., Stover's phone rings. It is Cherry.

"She loves to do it. It's her way of giving someone a lift," he said.

Cherry calls many in her extended family, too.

"She called my father until he died 14 years ago," said Jackie Neal, a cousin. "Now, she calls me."

Later this month, the Rev. A.J. Rollinson, Cherry's pastor at Mount Do-Well, will get his song for the fifth straight year.

"Five o'clock in the morning," Rollinson said. "If it is your birthday you come to expect the call. Not just me, but so many in the church. Others, too. It makes you feel like somebody is thinking about you. That someone wants your birthday to be special. "

When the call is over, there is no small talk.

"She finishes the song and hangs up," Rollinson said. "It's not as if she would need to say who it was. Couldn't be anybody else."

Cherry has had a few tearful calls over the years from people who didn't get a birthday call. Even the birthday lady gets sidetracked once in a blue moon getting ready for work or church.

"One lady was crying, asking what she had done to me to make me mad," Cherry said. "I just hadn't gotten around to it that day."

Cherry sang so often on the intercom at her Charlotte job that she had to be barred from singing over the loudspeakers.

"I just sing individual to them now," Cherry said. "Black or white, young or old. I don't care. I know the birthday, they get the song."

Her only child, Dreama, now 27, has had an alarm clock of hearing "Happy Birthday" sung to somebody almost every day of her life. One time, Cherry even went to Dreama's job at Family Trust Credit Union and sang.

"I was working at the drive-through window and someone told me there was a lady out in the lobby who wanted to see me," Dreama said. "Then I heard the song. Who else could it be? I turned right back around, and she kept right on singing."

One predawn morning many years ago, the phone rang at the house of Betty Jo Rhea, the Rock Hill mayor at the time. "Happy Birthday" flowed out of the earpiece. Yvonne Cherry, of course.

"I've had people sing me happy birthday before and since, but never a total stranger on the phone," Rhea recalled. "A precious gift. I still remember like it was yesterday."

Back in the late 1990s Cherry wanted to call then-President Bill Clinton to wish him a happy birthday.

"His birthday is August 19th," Cherry said.

But because she couldn't get Clinton on the phone, Cherry sent birthday cards two years running. Afterward in her mail, there was a manila envelope with a return address of "The White House. Washington."

Inside was picture of Clinton and a signed letter thanking her for thinking of Clinton on his birthday.

"He may have needed that birthday wish," Cherry said. "We all need a happy birthday."

Today, Yvonne Cherry tuns 49 years old. Her phone number is 328-8370.

Call her before the sunrise. The "Happy Birthday" lady can't call herself.