Voice of Montevallo deals with serious illness

Published 1:36 pm Thursday, August 30, 2018

By NANCY WILSTACH / Special to the Reporter

MONTEVALLO – “Dollar Bill” Lawson has been so ill, he is down to about 50 cents these days. That’s the kind of joke the man inspires. He could make a weeping willow laugh.

Lawson is fighting back right now against a debilitating type of radicular neuropathy.

“And if I let go of this (walker) and don’t lock my leg, I go down like a sack of wet cement,” Lawson said. Nevertheless, he plans to be present and accounted for Saturday Sept. 8 at Montevallo’s inaugural Tinglewood Festival.

Rarely does any public event go down in Montevallo without “Dollar Bill” being part of it.  He is the voice of Montevallo.

And to think he might have become a dentist.

“I was a senior in college when I finally got the courage to tell my dad that I wasn’t going to be a dentist like him,” Lawson, 65, said.  “He was disappointed, but he covered it and asked ‘What do you plan to do then—a doctor, a lawyer?’

“When I told him that what I really wanted to do was be a disc jockey, he was not happy—it was not a pleasant evening at the Lawson house.”

Lawson’s father has come to terms with his son’s decision and is proud of one of the most popular radio personalities in the Birmingham area. For 33 years “Dollar Bill” was on WZZK-FM in the mornings with the late Patti Wheeler (“Patti and Dollar Bill”).  He left there in 2002 to join 102.5 “the Bull.” That’s where he still goes on the air every morning at 5 a.m. and where he recently had his head shaved in a fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

Lawson’s illness leaves him exhausted, he said, but a series of infusions during five days in the hospital ratcheted down the excruciating and unrelenting pain in his left leg. That hospital stay almost created a mountain of debt when his insurance company refused to cover the treatments.

“Bill was giving them you-know-what on the air,” his wife, Mary, said.  “Thank goodness he didn’t call the company by name, but some people from the hospital heard it. They called him and said they were going to bypass the insurance company and go straight to Medicare, and the hospital would pick up the difference. That was such a relief.”

“Dollar Bill” and Mary were co-civic leaders of the year for 2014, said Steve Gilbert, director of the Montevallo Chamber of Commerce. And Lawson is president of the Montevallo Kiwanis Club.

“They both do so much for the community,” Gilbert said. Gilbert, who came up in radio himself, pondered why Lawson is so well liked.

“Well, he always has a smile on his face, and he has never met a stranger, but it is also his voice. People spend a lot of time with him, especially if they commute to work. They all feel as if they know him,” Gilbert said.

The two men have been friends since the 1980’s when they worked together on the Brierfield Music Festival where “Dollar Bill” was the emcee. Lawson has been emcee countless times for countless events—the Alabaster City Fest, the Montevallo Christmas Parade, the annual Montevallo Citizens’ Night banquet and the American Village’s Fourth of July celebration.

It was tough this year.  He became seriously ill in February and took a bad fall in April while working a concert at the Tin Roof on Southside.  Following that he was tested for everything— “I had an MRI, a brain scan, a CT scan, the works.  They ruled out ALS and MS.  They ruled out cancer, but the pain was still unbelievable.”

His weight also had been dropping rapidly—none of his clothes fit anymore. Four weeks ago, his neurologist ordered the IVIG (intravenous immunoglobulin) infusion therapy: four hours of a slow IV drip each day for five days in the hospital. That was four weeks ago.

“It has made a lot of difference,” Lawson said.  “The pain has decreased, but the leg still doesn’t work.”

Getting around has improved, too, since Jim Terrell and his colleagues at the Pelham and Alabaster fire departments came up with a motorized scooter two weeks ago.  Then, Terrell and eight other firefighters came over to the Lawson house and built a ramp for access to the rear deck.

Oh, and how did he wind up “Dollar Bill”? It all started with a boss who insisted all his DJs have nicknames. Lawson was promoting a grocery giveaway at the time.

“He pointed at me and said, ‘You are Grocery Bag Bill,’ and I knew I had to come up with something fast, so I said, ‘No, I’m Dollar Bill.’”