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Sean Kirst: After tragic death, a birthday gift for Rosemary Billquist

If everything went as it did for decades, this would have been one of Rosemary Billquist's favorite days of the year.

The alarm clock would have gone off around 6 a.m. and the alarm on her phone would have kicked in as well, but she would have slept straight through, because she always slept hard.

Her husband, Jamie, knowing his wife, would have gone outdoors to clean the snow off her car and warm it up for her, before returning to gently tell her it was time to get moving. They would have gotten ready for work in the way husbands and wives do, calling to each other about the day as they moved from room to room.

They would have said so long to their dogs, Sugar and Stella, then left in separate vehicles for their jobs in Jamestown, in Chautauqua County, Jamie always following behind Rosemary. When the couple parted ways as they left I-86, they would have flashed their headlights as a daily goodbye.

Today would have been Rosemary's 44th birthday. Jamie is sure of this: After Rosemary returned from her job at Jamestown's WCA Hospital, the couple would have headed to Chef's Restaurant in Buffalo, one of her favorite spots.

"She loved birthdays, everybody's birthday," Jamie said, "and she usually started celebrating about 17 days before the day."

Instead, Jamie begins today alone. His wife was shot to death near their home in Sherman not quite two months ago, when she took the dogs for a walk at dusk in a field. Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office investigators say a neighbor, Thomas Jadlowski, told them he mistakenly believed Rosemary was a deer.

Sean Kirst: To understand shooting victim Rosemary Billquist, meet her dogs

Jamie, who works for PepsiCo, has made a choice. Even on the birthday of the woman he calls "Rosie," he will not lose himself to fury. Every morning, he tries to post some upbeat thoughts on Facebook that he knows Rosemary believed, often going through her old posts to find them.

There is a growing pile of snow near his driveway. He'll grab a can of purple spray paint — purple being one of Rosemary's favorite colors — and he'll paint expressions in the snow that she often used. One day, he painted, "dream big," but most often he paints the words that were her core philosophy.

Be kind.

Letters in a snowbank: Jamie Billquist shares his wife's philosophy. (Image courtesy of Jamie Billquist)

"She was just a great person," Jamie said. "When I start to get mad, I think of her, and I know if I'd been the one who gotten shot, she would have said, 'Forgive or whatever.' "

Her kindness prevents him from getting swept away in anger. With the case still in process, he has yet to hear from Jadlowski. But Jamie has met informally with prosecutors and investigators, a way of keeping the families of victims up to date that Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson said is standard "in cases of this magnitude."

If Jadlowski is found guilty as charged of manslaughter, either by plea or trial, he faces a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

"He needs to serve some time in prison because he did wrong and he knew what he was doing was wrong," Billquist said. "When it's all said and done, I'd like an apology, and I think he should speak to some hunter safety courses. Maybe it would save someone else's life, even one person's life, if he got up there and said you've got to be thinking before you put in that bullet and pull the trigger."

Jamie said he'll deal with those issues when the time arrives. His focus, right now, is coping with all he's lost. Every day, he tries to celebrate his wife's life by helping those who never met her understand who she was. Some of her friends at work often talk about "WWRD" — what would Rosie do?

Jamie tries to follow the same example.

The reminders are constant. Once he returns from his job at PepsiCo, he is greeted by the two yellow labs, both rescue dogs, that were Rosemary's regular companions. Even the couple's 7-year-old cat, named "T as in trouble," was an animal she took in to ease the worries of its owner, a man in hospice care.

When he died, Rosemary gave the cat a home.

On her own time, often informally, she visited shut-ins, the elderly, men and women coping with devastating illnesses.

Her great passion was distance running — "That was her high," Jamie said — and he guesses she'd finished more than 60 marathons, often training without a second thought in bitter cold and snow.

Rosemary and Jamie Billquist. (Image courtesy of Jamie Billquist)

If she was unyielding about anything, Jamie said, it was her belief that compassion should rise above all else. Married in 1996, the couple had known each other since they were teenagers, and if Jamie can no longer have Rosemary in his life, he can still put words and actions to the way she saw the world.

"A lot of people are reaching out," he said.

He expects, within the coming months, that final details will be announced on two Southern Tier road races created in Rosemary's honor, as well as two scholarship funds coordinated by separate organizations. Money donated in her memory will also allow Rescue Pups, the home-based shelter in Allegany County where the Billquists found their dogs, to build a much-needed nursery for puppies.

All of it provides Jamie with one measure of consolation. In a raw and angry time, he likes to think his wife's example can make a difference.

"There's just so much garbage going on in the world, and I try to be positive," Jamie said. "Her whole idea was to laugh, smile more and just try to be kinder."

Put to the test, on her birthday, he can still give her that gift.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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