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'It's just been a blessing': Fred Meyer greeter battles cancer with music, faith and friends

Willie Binns greets shoppers at the Hollywood Fred Meyer. He started working there in 2020 while undergoing chemo and radiation therapy. He is currently cancer-free.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Fred Meyer is celebrating its 100th anniversary since opening the first store in downtown Portland in 1922. The largest and busiest of the 130 locations in four states is the Hollywood location in Northeast Portland. The man customers will likely see welcoming them inside during the week has quite a life story.

Willie Binns has a smile and a wave for everyone who walks in the main entrance near the produce section of the Hollywood Fred Meyer. It's where his greeter stand is stationed.

"When you walk in, you see him, you're greeted by him. When you walk out, you're greeted by him," said friend Hannah Lewis, branch manager of the OnPoint Community Credit Union.

If Binns isn't at his greeter post Monday through Friday, a cutout of his face made by co-workers is. 

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"They found out about my birthday so they took a picture of me," Binns laughs. "And if it's not there, my customers get upset."

The 68-year-old is known for his sharp dressing. One co-worker takes a photo of Binns' outfits each day to create a catalogue. 

"His customers, as they walk by on their daily grocery run, are checking to see what he's wearing," Lewis said.

Binns estimates he has probably 100 pairs of shoes. His most prized, a pair of Louis Vuitton dress shoes. 

"He'll even come in on the weekends just to show off a new outfit and a new pair of shoes."

Credit: Courtesy: Willie Binns
Binns celebrated his birthday with his friends at OnPoint Community Credit Union, which opened next to his greeter stand in 2021.

The Portland native has led a pretty amazing life. 

"I'm a choir director, a voice teacher and a trainer. I've been doing that for 52 years. And I love it," Binns said. 

An accomplished pianist in gospel and classical music, Willie plays at several churches around North and Northeast Portland. In 2016, he went on an all-expenses paid trip to lead workshops for budding musicians in Paris, France. 

For decades, he worked as a caregiver at Providence Assisted Living before retiring several years back. 

"Like most people that retire, they find out after about a month, I got more time on my hands than I need. So they wind up going back to work," he said.

"I have a sister that's worked [at Fred Meyer for] 20 years. So she told me about the greeter position. So long story short, here I am."

Binns called the experience a blessing.

"Meeting so many different types of people, cultures, race, backgrounds, interacting, talking with them. It's just been a blessing and it's helped me mentally, emotionally, physically," he said. "It's just made me a happy person."

Credit: Willie Binns
Binns at a choir performance at a Portland church before he was diagnosed with cancer.

Binns needed that lift. In 2013, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Then in 2017, it was oral cancer in his jaw and neck. 

"First time I met with the oncologist, they wanted to cut half my face off," he said.

That didn't happen. But to get the cancer out, he had four surgeries in one day and spent a month at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). Doctors used bone, cut from his lower leg, to reconstruct his jaw. They also inserted a metal plate that made everything taste metallic and he lost his appetite. 

"I didn't really eat. I lost a lot of weight, a lot of weight," he said.

In 2019, the cancer returned. Weeks of excruciating chemo and radiation killed it, and right now, he's cancer free. 

"Honestly, it just impresses me so much. And if I ever go through a situation like that myself, I'm going to think of him," Hannah Lewis said. 

Binns was Lewis' first OnPoint member at the Hollywood Fred Meyer branch when they opened a year ago.

While her team helped Binns consolidate credit cards and lower his interest rates, it's Binns who has helped them. 

"I think there's a lot of survivors out there or people going through something similar that if they have the pleasure to meet him, his spirits, they just lift you up. And his positive outlook, I think, has really just shaped his ability to fight cancer," Lewis said.

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