A heavenly send-off to the man who hired my birth mother over a half-century ago

Since discovering my West Virginia roots in 2005 — most wonderfully, finding my three older full siblings — I’ve tried to learn as much as possible about my biological parents and my birthplace of Huntington. In doing so, I’ve reached out to a multitude of strangers, most of whom didn’t know Betty and Bob. But those who did have been gracious with their time and memories, filling in bits of my parents’ lives for the son who never met them.

Joe G. Stevens Jr.

Today, I learned that one of those folks, Joe G. Stevens Jr., left for heaven on Memorial Day at age 93. Mr. Stevens, whose family owned Stevens Drug Store in downtown Huntington from 1934 to 1988, hired my dear birth mother Betty as a clerk in about 1968. She ended up being one of his most beloved and valued employees for the next 20 years until he sold the store at the corner of 5th Avenue and 10th Street to Rite-Aid in 1988.

https://www.herald-dispatch.com/obituaries/wv/joseph-g-stevens-jr/article_60af1b17-38fb-5dd3-82d3-4b7bd4fc57c8.html

After Mr. Stevens hired Betty, in no time she became fast friends with fellow clerks Dolores Gardner and Shirley Booten, and the three were inseparable during the two decades Betty worked there. Dolores and Shirley were younger than Betty, but old enough that their kinship was genuine and relatable, and it never wavered. I know this not from Betty, who died of lung cancer in 1992, but from phone visits with Shirley and with Dolores, who died of the same cancer in 2012.

My birth mother Betty (right) with longtime colleague and dear friend Dolores Gardner at work at Stevens Drug Store in the 1980s. Dolores told me they and fellow clerk and inseparable friend Shirley Booten were like peas in a pod.

But back to Mr. Stevens. I was fortunate to get to visit with him a couple of times a few years back, too, before his wife, Jeannette, passed away. He told me about how he hired Betty away from Lawrence Drug Store, where she’d gone to work after placing me for adoption at birth in 1961.

I know the hiring at Stevens was difficult for Betty, because Mr. Stevens told me that both she and her close friend Ruth Bunch, also a clerk at Lawrence, were in the running for the position, and Betty got the job. I remember Mr. Stevens telling me that Betty was always a dedicated, diligent worker and that the store’s customers loved her. (I also know this to be true from others.)

In a photo from the early 1950s, Stevens Drug Store can be seen at the corner of 5th Avenue and 10th Street in downtown Huntington, where the “DRUGS” sign hangs below the Huntington School of Business. (Huntington Herald-Dispatch archives)

Betty had been divorced from my alcoholic birth father for a number of years by the time she started working at Stevens. But a couple of years after she arrived, Dolores told me, she introduced Betty to a man who was 17 years Betty’s junior — a local amateur country musician named Ronnie Cazad. They ended up marrying in July 1971, with Ronnie only 33 and Betty weeks from turning 50.

She always loved him, but his son Ron, who sadly passed away three years ago, and others have told me the marriage was difficult because Ronnie, who also struggled with alcoholism, didn’t work after the early years. Betty, who never drove in her life, often got rides to work from Ronnie’s mother, who was just five years older than Betty. She worked there until Mr. Stevens sold the drugstore in 1988, when she was 67 years old — and then found another job clerking at a small drugstore in Guyandotte, a tiny community on the eastern outskirts of Huntington.

The most revelatory, lingering comment I can recall from my first phone conversation with Mr. Stevens, who I wish had shared more specific memories of Betty with me but didn’t seem inclined to:

“One thing I’ll never understand is why she ever married that damn Ronnie Cazad.”

This cherished image I found in some photos my oldest birth sibling Crys gave me several years ago shows our mother Betty with Crys’s sons Brad (left) and Tim in 1984, upstairs at Stevens Drug Store. The boys’ mother, Charlene, had flown with them from Denver to visit their grandparents in Huntington.

Like other elderly contacts I’ve made in my search for people still living who knew my birth parents, I’d done occasional Google searches for Mr. Stevens in recent years to see if he’d passed away. Late this afternoon, I searched “Joe Stevens” and “Clearwater,” where he and his wife had lived for years, and was saddened to find his obituary in the Huntington newspaper. I’d hoped to call him one more time to see if he might open up a bit more about Betty, but never had time (isn’t that always the way it goes?). After reading of his Alzheimer’s, it became clear we couldn’t have had that chance.

Mr. Stevens’ obit is full of wonderful life adventures and achievements involving not only pharmacy, but military service, singing and dancing, poetry writing and directing musical variety shows. It’s clear he was quite an accomplished fellow and I would’ve loved to have met the man who hired my mother for the job she would hold longer than any other in her life.

Rest well, Joe G. Stevens Jr. And thank you for taking a shot on Betty over half a century ago.  

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