Resident Spotlight: Billie Jean Ratliff


The nurturing and caring instincts which are requisites for being a good mother usually come into play when a woman gives birth to a child. Sometimes fate steps in and requires those skills before that occurs. Such was the case with Billie Jean Ratliff. She was the first to be born into a family with six brothers and two sisters to follow her. Because she was the oldest child, she was cast into a maternal role at an early age. This experience would help her later on when she had her own children. 

Billie Jean Dawkins was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis on November 23, 1934. Her parents married before completing high school and both found it necessary to work outside the home to support their growing family. For four years, Billie Jean’s father served in the military and his absence made it necessary for the family to live with relatives. 

Billie Jean’s paternal grandfather built several malls in the Memphis area and after leaving the military, Billie Jean’s father opened a grocery store in one of the malls on Getwell Road and eventually at two other sites. All the children, at one time in their lives, worked as cashiers or stockers in the stores. Billie Jean remembers vividly being at the store on an infamous day in 1950 when a Chicago and Southern airplane crashed near Getwell Road and their store. “My mother and I were standing at the front window of the store” recalls Billie Jean. “We watched as the plane crashed near us. My father was the first one to reach the site and pulled all passengers out to safety! The Commercial Appeal featured a nice article about him.” 

The role of Billie Jean to be the homemaker and caretaker of the younger children began when she was eight or nine years of age with her responsibilities increasing as she reached junior high. Usually, the parents did not get home in the evening until seven or eight o’clock. So, she learned to cook, clean the house, wash clothes and supervise homework. Billie Jean says that this seemed like a normal life, but she missed many of the opportunities to become involved with the extra-curricular activities enjoyed by her age group. However, she was a majorette in her high school band for three years. One of Billie Jean’s granddaughters related this about her, “I believe that the circumstances of Grandmother’s early life are responsible for the strength, resilience, courage, stamina, loyalty, and humility that made her a good mother and person.” 

Billie Jean in HS

Billie Jean attended several different grammar schools and graduated from Messick High School in 1952. She enrolled in Memphis State University (now The University of Memphis), and after one year, met and married Jimmy Ganong. They were married for seven years before divorcing and had four children in those seven years. This meant she had multiple children in diapers at the same time. Fortunately, her Mother-in-law was available to help. Billie Jean says, “It was great when they all got to secondary school and were all participating in sports and activities together.” 

Two years after her divorce from Jimmy, Billie Jean married her high school sweetheart, James Gordon Tobias, a Lieutenant with the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Billie Jean and “Toby” had one daughter, giving them a fifth child. According to Billie Jean, “We had forty-three years together! He was a wonderful father and person and instrumental in starting ballparks throughout our neighborhood.” Unfortunately, “Toby” died of a heart attack in 2006. 

Billie Jean is extremely proud of her children, all of whom graduated from college and built successful lives and careers. One daughter, in particular, Cheri Ganong, is well known for advancing from a “Pom Pom Girl” at Memphis State to Director of the program, then leading the University’s group to ten continuous years of national championships. 

In addition to being responsible for rearing five children, Billie Jean worked for ICI Americans Chemical Company for thirty-seven years. The company was bought by Humko and according to Billie Jean, had five name changes during her employment. “I thoroughly loved working with the people there,” says Billie Jean. “They treated me like family.” 

In 2012, after seven years of widowhood, Billie Jean married Barney Ratliff. They had known each other for some time through mutual friends. Together they made trips to Scotland and Ireland and many trips to Pickwick Lake and the University of Alabama to visit grandchildren. Unexpectedly, Barney passed away in 2018. According to Billie Jean, “We had six wonderful years together and after his death, I knew I did not want to live by myself or with my children, so, I started investigating, and because I already had friends living at Kirby Pines and with help from Marketing, I made the move to Kirby Pines in 2018.” Billie Jean enjoys having her family close by which now includes twelve grandchildren and soon four great-grandchildren. 

Billie Jean continues, “I have always loved my church, Highland Church of Christ and I’m so happy to have the 8:00 am church services available here every Sunday. I have loved every minute of living at Kirby Pines. I play cards in several groups, work in the Blossom Shop and enjoy meeting so many people. Kirby Pines has the most wonderful people!” 

Wrtten by Joan Dodson, Resident, Kirby Pines