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When a statue calls your cell

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The Helen Claytor statue stands on GRCC’s Student Plaza. (Lisa Stapel/The Collegiate)

The first time a statue called me, it was a little creepy.

It was pre-dawn on a weekday when my Google Pixel XL phone rang. I grabbed for it in the dark, half-asleep and mentally cursing the soul who would dare call me at that hour. I expected to see a name I recognized on the display. Instead, in big letters the screen identified the caller as “Helen Claytor Statue.” A statue was calling me. Was I still dreaming? I declined the call; it was too much for me to process.

It turned out that the call was from the automated message system that announces school closings at Grand Rapids Community College. The call was quickly followed by a text message from a different number and an email to my GRCC account to inform me that classes were cancelled that day due to poor weather conditions.

Since then, it has always been the Helen Claytor statue that has “called” to notify me of school closings and delays. “She” usually calls around 5:30 a.m., which is when GRCC representatives make the decision whether or not to conduct classes. Sometimes, if the forecast is particularly ominous, she calls the evening before classes begin.

GRCC has seen a lot of snow days lately, and seeing Claytor’s name over and over in my phone made me wonder who she really was. I decided to investigate.

In real life, Helen Jackson Claytor (1907-2005) was more than a messenger for students’ safety. She was the first black woman to be elected president of the Grand Rapids YWCA (1949) and of the National YWCA (1967), among her many accomplishments. She was a champion for civil rights, and as National YWCA president in 1970, she worked to concentrate the YWCA’s collective efforts behind one goal: “The elimination of racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary,” a goal that has been renewed each year since.

“God made us diverse, and we have to live in harmony,” Claytor told the Grand Rapids Press in 1997.

Claytor was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984, and the Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission established the Helen Jackson Claytor Civil Rights Award in 1998. The Helen Claytor statue, located on GRCC’s Student Plaza, was the sixth addition to the Grand Rapids Community Legends Project when it was unveiled in 2014.

GRCC Communications Director Dave Murray is proud of Claytor’s representation on campus.

“The college was honored to have several of Mrs. Claytor’s children at the unveiling,” Murray stated in an email to The Collegiate, “and we are thrilled to have the work on GRCC’s Dr. Juan R. Olivarez Student Plaza so future generations can be inspired by Mrs. Claytor’s life of service.”

She is indeed an inspirational woman, but that still didn’t explain why she was on my caller ID. As it turns out, the connection between Claytor and the GRCC student alert system is not intentional.

Only Google phone owners experience the phenomenon of having this statue appear to be calling them, and there is a reason for that. There is obviously no phone at the monument, but the Helen Claytor statue does have a Google listing online, complete with photos and an address. At some point, an internet user “suggested” the school closings line as an appropriate contact number, and it has stayed on that listing ever since. All Google phones, such as my Pixel XL, comb the search engine for corresponding names when a number is unidentified, and thus every call from (616) 234-4722 is matched with the Helen Claytor statue.

The error has reportedly been fixed, but I’ve begun to look forward to seeing her name on my caller ID. Helen Claytor was an amazing human being, and putting her name to the school closings line makes it feel as though a motherly figure is looking out for us. Oh no, you stay inside today and keep warm, I imagine Helen Claytor saying when classes are cancelled. You be careful on the roads, she seems to caution when there is a two-hour delay.

Not too long ago, the weather was particularly treacherous, and she called every day for a week. Soon, even my boyfriend caught on. As he got ready to leave for work one snowy morning, he checked in for an update.  

“Did the statue call you yet?” he asked.

“Yes, she said to go back to sleep,” I mumbled, and I pulled the covers back over my head.