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'Dressed to the nines'

Local woman remembers many encounters with Prince

PAMPLIN MEDIA FILE PHOTO: DIEGO DIAZ - Debbie Papish was happy to see Portland pay tribute to Prince by lighting the Morrison Bridge purple April 21.When news broke of Prince’s sudden death April 21, the world erupted with tributes to the legendary pop star — testimonies of how his life and music affected lives all around the globe.

But only a select few could share stories of personal encounters with the mysterious, reclusive icon. As it happens, West Linn resident Debbie Papish is one of those few.

Debbie PapishPapish worked for years at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) as a representative for Northwest Airlines (now Delta).

Given the locale, celebrity encounters were not unusual, but Papish’s experiences with Prince were particularly memorable.

Over the course of 15 years, from 1988 to 2003 (when Prince began chartering his own jet), Papish developed a friendly working relationship with the musician.

But it didn’t come without effort.

Papish manned the front desk at various gates in LAX, and in the beginning, she barely caught as much as a glance of Prince before he boarded the plane.

“He was so shy,” she said. “His (half) brother, Duane, would come up with the tickets. ... Then he would radio o ut to the limo, and he had it worked out with security so Prince could go through by himself and walk through the gate and onto the plane.

“We said, ‘Why won’t he ever say hello?’”

Duane told them that Prince was simply shy, but Papish wasn’t having it.

“At least hand us your ticket!” she said.

One day, she took matters into her own hands and purposely walked in front of Prince as he made his way through the airport.

“I kind of walked in front of him and he froze, and he turned (to walk around me),” Papish said.

She moved in front of him again, then confronted him.

“I go, ‘Look, I’ve seen you for a couple of years and you walk by and don’t say hello!’” Papish said. “He said hello after that.”

Papish noticed a change in Prince after his famed 1996 interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show, shortly after he had changed his name to “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”

“She just kind of brought him out of his shell,” Papish said. “After that, he said, ‘Hey Debbie, how are you doing?’”

Over the years, Prince and Papish struck up a professional friendship, and during flight delays they would sometimes wait it out together in the jet way.

“When the plane was having problems, he didn’t want to be in the plane, so we would talk in the jet way,” Papish said. “You don’t talk about the airlines; you get to talk about what’s going on with your families and things like that.”

As the two became more familiar, Papish came to recognize some of Prince’s more charming quirks. He loved to tease people, Papish said, and on one occasion refused to show his ticket, demanding instead that Papish remove it from the pocket of his Armani suit.

“He was always dressed to the nines,” she said.

He also hated to fly commercially, and made sure to purchase seat 1A to ensure he was first on board and the first to leave.

“When you open the plane door, it’s electronic,” Papish said. “He would bolt out before the door was even halfway up; he would bend over and shoot out of the plane. Because he was so shy, and he wanted to get out of there.”

Yet beyond the quirks, Papish also learned about a man who “did so much stuff for so many people” — a “humanitarian” whose best work often took place behind the scenes.

“He didn’t like to bring a lot of publicity to himself,” Papish said. “Sometimes he would do stuff through other people.”

Like millions of others, Papish was stunned to learn of Prince’s death.

“It was just really sad to see him go,” she said. “It wasn’t like a lot of other celebrities where you hear so much drama on the news. He didn’t get in trouble, he loved doing his work and he made people happy.”

She was happy, though, when she saw that Delta had turned its cabin lights purple after the news broke. And, closer to home, the City of Portland lit the Morrison Bridge with purple lights.

“He wasn’t a personal friend; I didn’t go to his house or anything,” Papish said. “But when you work with someone for 15 years, you get to know them.”