DECEMBER 22, 2014

STRANGER: Jean Bishop
LOCATION: The Beehive, Age UK Hull Healthy Living Centre, Porter Street, Hull, England
THEME: Lunch with a long-running charity fundraiser

What’s 92 and black-and-yellow all over?

Jean Bishop, also known as the Bee Lady. For more than 30 years she’s been dressing up in a bumblebee costume as an eye-catching way to raise funds for Age UK, an organization dedicated to helping the elderly with everything from company and hobbies to helping with managing things like insurance. To date, Jean has harvested more than £100,000 ($155,000) for Age UK.

As I’d learn once she got into her costume after our lunch interview, it’s easy to see why people must be willing to drop money in her collection tin. The colorful costume draws you in, and Jean’s sunny demeanor and good humor keep you happy and engaged.

I met Jean in the foyer of the Healthy Living Centre, a multi-story building housing Age UK’s branch in Hull, a city in the northeast of England where I was back for the holidays. It’s an industrial port town where the weather tends to veer to the colder and rainier. But the people of the city have — and deserve — a reputation for being friendly and unpretentious, and that’s why I’m always happy to make return visits.

However, despite living in the Hull area for more than 20 years, I’d never visited Age UK Hull’s premises. Later that day I’d get a tour from Pam Hall, Age UK Hull’s business manager, and discover that the building is impressive, featuring offices, a gym, a swimming pool, shop, and restaurant.

But first I had to get lunch with Mrs. Bishop.

“Here’s your stranger, Jean,” said Pam, leading her out of an elevator and into the restaurant on the ground floor of the Healthy Living Centre.

It’s named The Beehive in tribute to all the fundraising work that Jean has done for the organization. Pictures of some of the highlights from Jean’s life as a pollinator line the walls, including her stint carrying the torch for the Olympics in England in 2012, and the time she was named “Pride of Britain.” Even the waitstaff wear bumblebee antenna headbands.

Several of the staffers came over to our table as Jean and I sat down.

“I didn’t want you to think she’d brought her boy toy with her,” Pam said with a grin to the staff. “Tongues start wagging,” she said, adding in a theatrical wink.

Shrugging my shoulders, I said, “I haven’t been on a date in a while.”

“Neither has she!” said Pam, looking at Jean with a smile.

With that, Pam said she’d have to pass on joining us for lunch given her massive crunch of pre-Christmas work. The holidays are a crucial time for Age UK, as many elderly people can find themselves isolated. Age UK offers vital socializing for the elderly through its hobby classes, physical activities and more. But it also offers important practical services for the over-50s needing assistance, for everything from car insurance to writing wills.

“It’s very important for all the old people,” said Jean. “Nobody else seems to be looking after the elderly, but any help you want, you can come in here and they offer it.”

Jean, 92, first discovered Age UK — an independent charity that combined two prior organizations known as Age Concern and Help The Aged — about three decades ago.

Her husband Clifford had passed away. Although Jean still had her children John and Jennifer for company, she also had times when she was lonely and looking for things to do. She read in a newspaper about Age UK offering a knitting class. Jean had long been a fan of knitting, so she went to the class.

She kept attending, until one day the teacher left and Jean took over. That’s when she started dressing up in various wacky costumes to entertain her students.

That caught the eye of a woman who used to organize fundraising for Age UK. She’d spotted a bumblebee costume for hire in Hull and brought it back to the charity. She asked Jean to try it on. Jean obliged. “Then she stuck a tin in my hand said, ‘Go out collecting,’” said Jean. She was hesitant at first, having never done it before. But she got over her doubts and went out.

“It was lovely,” said Jean. On her first trip round the city as the Bee Lady she was mobbed with people of all ages rushing up to her for a chat and to make a donation.

She’d been stung with the joy of combining her apparently natural social nature with fundraising for a cause that is close to her heart. So for a few more weeks they’d keep hiring the bee costume and she’d go out collecting cash.

Eventually Age UK realized it was costing them a fair amount to keep renting the costume and asked Jean whether she could make one.

“I had no idea how,” said Jean. But her daughter stepped in to help. The costume, which Jean promised to show me after lunch, is three hula hoops covered in black-and-yellow fur. It’s a simplistic design, but it’s withstood more than 30 years of use.

Jean said the costume is always tidy but that she can spot-clean it if necessary. It’s a bit too big for a conventional washer and dryer. It’s stored either at her home or at Age UK.

As she’s gotten older, Jean said that she’s reduced her collecting schedule. But she still can often be found wandering the city’s Prospect Centre shopping mall. And she’s always willing to don the costume at a moment’s notice if Age UK calls with an event for her.

Being a former resident of Hull, I can attest to the fact that Jean’s buzzing around the city often caught the attention of the reporters and photographs of the local press.

In recent years, however, her work has also attracted national attention.

Her charity efforts led her to be nominated to carry the Olympic torch for a stretch of road in Hull during the torch’s national tour ahead of the 2012 Olympics in London.

It was a tough time for Jean as she had been ill and unable to walk. But with encouragement from her family she mustered the strength to start practicing being upright again, starting out with small walks to the postbox outside her house. Eventually she realized she had enough energy to accept the once-in-a-lifetime duty of being an official torch bearer. “I was trembling, but I did it,” she said.

One year later, Jean was back on the national stage as the winner of the 2013 Fundraiser of the Year award, organized by national newspaper The Daily Mirror as part of a Pride of Britain event to celebrate Britain’s “unsung heroes.”

Jean had won the local Pride of Hull award that year in recognition of her charity work, but when she was invited down to London out of the blue, she figured it was just for a fundraising opportunity. Organizers of the Pride of Britain event took her to a shopping mall, but Jean was confused because all she could see were photographers and reporters — not a donor in sight.

It’s testament to just how many photographs Jean has posed for and how many interviews she’s done that the presence of so many members of the media didn’t faze her.

Instead, her biggest concern was how she would increase her total takings for Age UK, which at that time were £90,000 ($140,000).

Unbeknownst to Jean, television presenter David Walliams — dressed in a bumblebee costume — was approaching Jean from behind, holding the Pride of Britain Fundraiser of the Year award.

Walliams tapped Jean on the shoulder. She turned around. “He’s so tall I could only see part of his body in the bee costume. I thought, ‘He’s pinched my idea! No wonder there’s nobody here!’ I was just going to tell him off, but then he bent down and said, ‘Hello, Jean.’”

Walliams is a familiar face on British TV screens and Jean recognized him straight away. He told her about the award, and she was delighted. Then it was off to a star-studded award ceremony, where she was able to raise funds from wealthy celebrities and others. It was that event that pushed Jean over the landmark £100,000 fundraising total, something she’s still very proud of.

She even got to see 10 Downing Street, invited by the Prime Minister David Cameron for a tour and a group photograph. Her verdict of the place? “It’s nothing much,” she said with a shrug. “It’s just like an ordinary, dull house. There isn’t anything to speak about.”

Jean’s quip about Number 10 prompted a laugh from a man standing nearby. And then he walked up to the table, pulling up a chair and smiling at both of us.

“I thought I’d pop in and see what stranger my mum’s meeting,” said the man. It was Jean’s son John. Her eyes lit up with the surprise of seeing him there.

As all three of us chatted, I realized that John takes after his mother in terms of personality. They’re both incredibly easygoing, very friendly and talking with them is like reuniting with old friends. I was happy to go from dining with one stranger to two strangers.

It was a pleasant venue for the meal. The Beehive is a light, welcoming place with large windows and plenty of seating laid out around the clean dining room. The restaurant is on the ground floor of the Healthy Living Centre, which is staffed by a mix of paid workers and volunteers. Most of the diners were older people, though the waitresses were incredibly friendly to me, and the Beehive welcomes diners of all ages.

The dining options at the Beehive are on a set rotating menu. It’s good standard British fare: fish and chips, sausage and potato, Yorkshire puddings, and more. After spending almost the entire year in the United States, I was happy to spend one of the first days of my Christmas break back in England with the kind of menu the Beehive offers.

John and I both went for that day’s offering a minced meat pie served with mashed potatoes, carrots and cabbage, coated with a perfect amount of freshly made gravy.

The pie hit the spot. The tender meat was embedded in a wonderfully buttery crust, and the piping hot gravy was a great complement to the fluffy mashed potatoes.

“I’m not much of a big eater,” Jean confessed.

She opted for a small salad served with salmon. While I didn’t try it, it looked good and Jean said it was tasty. The fact I’d ended up with a much bigger plate of food and she’s not a big eater meant that for once I didn’t feel guilty about asking her questions while I ate.

So I quizzed her about her upbringing.

Jean was born in a town called Louth in Lincolsnhire, but the family moved to the Hull area when she was still a toddler. Her father tried various odd jobs, including owning a fish shop and working on machines at the local fairground. Eventually he got a job in the village of Brough at what is now known as BAE Systems — a company that includes the former British Aerospace, a major manufacturer of civil and military aircraft and land systems.

At age 14 Jean left school and started working at a printers’ shop in Hull. She was working massive machines that a girl her age wasn’t typically meant to use. She got a twinkle in her eye as she told me how hardly anyone else was able to do the work she was able to do.

When World War II started, Jean was eager to join the land army. But her father wanted to keep her close to home and got her a job at British Aerospace, safely out of the armed services. “He kept me under his arm,” she said.

British Aerospace is where she met her husband Clifford. Jean did accounting and told me with a laugh that she’d always make sure he’d get his bonus first. “The others could never figure it out,” she said with a broad smile. “’I bet Bishop’s got his bonus already,’ they’d say.”

After the war ended and demand for British Aerospace’s products dropped, Jean was made redundant. She did various jobs including working as a lunch lady at a few schools. But eventually Clifford became ill, and Jean stopped working to attend to him until he died.

As Jean had earlier described it, it was Clifford’s death that propelled her to look for new ways to socialize — which led to Age UK and ultimately to the Bee Lady.

John said that Jean’s story is a prime example of why the charity remains so valuable to the elderly. “Say that you’re on your own, your spouse has died. Here you can come in and chat with people and be a party of society again. You’re not on your own,” he said.

Jean nodded, reiterating that she loves raising money for Age UK’s work.

“I enjoy every bit of it,” she said. “Everyone that puts money in my tin is my friend. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of friends. I can’t think of one that’s ever been nasty to me.”

She smiled again. “In fact, they’re almost too much. They run up, hug me, kiss me, pick me up, dance me around. I never know what to expect,” said Jean.

“And they all think you remember them, don’t they?” asked John.

“Oh yes,” said Jean. “People will come up from years and years ago and ask if I remember them. I just say yes — the more you agree with them, the more they put in the collection tin,” Jean said, laughing. Despite her jokes, it’s clear she has nothing but affection for her hundreds of donors.

She was also more than patient with my many questions, and after lunch she was happy to clamber into her costume for a few photos. And yes, I gave her a donation.

As a monument to Jean, the city of Hull repainted a public phone box with black-and-yellow stripes and bumblebee antenna. Jean is obviously well-loved in the city for all that she’s done so far, but as we finished our lunch, she said she’s far from finished.

Now she’s got a goal of raising £150,000 ($230,000) for Age UK. “I’m always aiming for more,” said Jean. “You can always find me here, waiting for the next assignment.”

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