For Harry the past is never far away
If life is what you make it, he made it good, the best he could.
Throughout this journey I’ve been most fortunate to have known and made friends with wonderful, unique people from all walks of life. Everyone has a story, so over the next few months I hope to write about some of those great folks I call my friends. The ones I most admire or the ones who have made life successful and weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouth.
My subject this week is a friend and customer of over 40 years. Harry Stephens wasn’t even born with a rusty spoon in his mouth. His mother died when he was three years old. His dad bounced around and Harry stayed primarily with he and his girl friend and sometimes with an older brother, Ronnie, who Harry still thanks today for looking after him in those early years.
At age 14, Harry felt forced to go out on his own. He came to Orange and survived by selling the Beaumont Enterprise newspaper. For three years he made do the best he could and at the first opportunity he left the streets and on his 17th birthday he joined the U.S Marines. Probably for the first time in his life, Harry felt like he had a family.
In those days he thumbed his way through the country. He served during the Cuban Crisis. When his time was up he returned to Orange and in 1963, he got a job with Varrett Appliance. He learned everything he could about the business and took courses on how to repair what they sold.
He still fixes any appliance he sells. In 1970, he bought out the appliance store. Married by then he and his wife Delores had three children. Raising a family and venturing into business was quite an undertaking for a guy who had little formal education but he had attended the school of hard knocks and he was a Marine with a strong work ethic. He had never known not having to hustle for a living. You will never find Harry out on the golf course, fishing or hunting on a workday.
Twenty-six years ago, he married his lovely wife Margie, a real sweetheart. Together they work daily in their store. Through the years there has been ups and downs in the business world but because of his upbringing, raising himself, Harry has been able to adjust with the times, tightening the business belt when he had to. Today it remains one of Orange’s most successful, solely owned companies.
Most of you know about this store but let me tell you another side. Like most of us who sewed our oats in the 1950’s, Harry is a creation of the times. He believes the 1950’s to be the best time ever. World War II had ended a few years earlier and everything was more laid back. Kids were dancing to a different music; the bee-bop sounds of Rock and Roll were born. The Wild Bunch and Blackboard Jungle, playing at the theater, cost a dime. Marlon Brando, James Dean and Marilyn were on the big screen.
Harry is locked into the 50’s through his many collections and memorabilia from that era. Hundreds of pieces in all. Harry can’t retire, he has to have a place to keep all his good stuff, including a bigger then life Elvis and Monroe, plenty of James Dean, old Coca Cola boxes and stuff, even a ringer washing machine, a 1953 bicycle, restored antiques and plenty more. It’s worth a trip to see Harry’s personal museum that marks his past.
The one item that has evaded him is the 1949 Mercury like the one James Dean drove in “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Over the years Harry has had plenty of toys, today he plays with his yellow truck. He says, “All my life I’ve been interested in, by today’s standard, old things, old music and such.” Continuing he says, “I guess I’m sentimental about things out of my past because they help me remember those times when things were different. Like the times Merle Haggard sang about a few years ago, ‘When a man could work and still would, when a girl could still cook and still would, when a couple could still jitterbug to great music and still would.’” Margie, even though she’s 23 years younger and from a different generation, tolerates Harry’s music. He enjoys Fats Domino, Elvis, Buddy Holly and his large collection of music from that period.
Several years ago, Harry had open-heart surgery. Margie sees that he takes care of himself. Today he has back problems that Dr. David Jones will try to fix. I’m not sure how the disk problem came about.
Harry and Margie are happy when they are together, which is most of the time. They spend some time with grandkids and travel little these days. For many years they followed the antique car circuit. Harry says today, “Life is good. Through the years I’ve been in most people’s homes, customers have become friends. Orange is a great place, with some really good people. I’ve been truly blessed.”
Harry and Margie are special to Phyl and I. My admiration for him and how he started life with little but a desire to make a life for himself without a family support system is great. He defied the odds and from his bootstraps he carved out a good, honest living and a happy life.
This Friday, Oct. 14, Harry turns 70-years-old. We both scratch our heads in amazement at how quickly life’s highway has brought us to this point. Just yesterday we were living in the 50’s. Happy birthday, my friend.