When the new year dawned in January, Bill Roper made his way to his place of business on Granite Avenue, just as he had for the better part of the last five decades. Born and brought up in Dorchester Lower Mills, he represents the second generation to own and operate the family-owned Roper’s Paint and Wallcovering store in the Cedar Grove neighborhood.
The business was established in 1951 by his father, William S. Roper, and young Bill joined the firm in 1964, after graduation from Canada’s St. Mary’s University. For many years, he worked alongside his father and his younger brother George, both now deceased. As this year began, after more than half a lifetime on Granite Avenue, he was beginning to consider making a change: Bill Roper’s thoughts were on retirement.
“I was thinking once I hit 70, which is a couple of months away, I would start getting serious about selling the business,” he said in an interview between helping customers at the store last Saturday. But suddenly, an unexpected health issue changed his world. “Push came to shout – three months ago today I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an exotic kind of auto-immune disease. It affected me, semi-paralyzing me from the neck down.”
Guillain-Barré is described as a disorder that attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. Early symptoms include weakness or tingling sensations in the legs, which sometimes spread to the arms and upper body. The intensity can increase to the point where certain muscles cannot be used and a degree of paralysis sets in.
Online medical descriptions state the syndrome is relatively rare (about one in 100,000), and can strike at any age and both sexes. It is said to usually occur shortly after the patient has had symptoms of a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection. It is also reported to be triggered by surgery or vaccinations.
At first, customers found a small, hand-written “closed” sign posted on the front door. Some guessed he had been forced to close down the one-man operation for the day, perhaps to deal with a winter flu or a doctor’s appointment. But that first afternoon turned to days, days to weeks, and soon Roper’s had been closed for two weeks, and there was little indication of when regular hours would return.
Slowly, word emerged that the store owner had been stricken by some sudden, perhaps life-threatening illness, and friends and customers sought out his family to learn details of the illness. Few if any had ever heard of Guillain-Barré syndrome, and his friends worried over what might have caused him to be stricken.
“I wasn’t sick before; I worked right through the holidays,” he explains. “I ended up with nine days at Mass General and they treated me with an intravenous kind of treatment.” After that, Roper was transferred to Sinai Hospital in Stoughton for physical therapy, and he began a long, slow recovery. More recently, he has returned to home, and was assisted by visiting nurses. “Currently I am graduated to Milton Hospital. They are wonderful, wonderful,” Roper says. “I can’t say enough about them – all the physical therapists I have had were great. They got me to the next level. They were terrific.”
During his treatment, his wife and children pitched in to open the doors for business for four hours every weekend. “I had my sons Brendan and Liam and my daughter-in-law Monica here every Saturday,” he said. Last Saturday, on one of his first days back at work, Roper beamed as he stopped for a picture with his wife Barbara and their granddaughter Charlotte.
But now, he says, the health scare has convinced him it’s time to finish up and move on. He has contacted a real estate broker and placed the property and the business on the market. “Once I got sick, it pushed it ahead that much faster,” he says. “I was all set to call in a realtor in January, then I came down with this exotic disease.”
How about his health now? “I’m improving, but I’m not perfect yet,” he says. But he has accepted the fact that he must sell the family business, and seems to have no regrets.
“I grew up in the business, came here in 1964,” Bill Roper says. “It’s 40-some years, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”