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Drawing inspiration from Mr. Stephens

If hard work is truly a virtue, then Samuel Stephens is a saint. I drove out to Stephens’ modest home in northeast Calhoun County last week for a visit after hearing his home church, Mays Chapel, was planning to honor him for his sainthood, so to speak. He has served the church as a deacon for 60 years, but his service goes far beyond what any title can define.

Stephens met me at the end of his driveway with a big smile. I told him I don’t think I’ve ever been on this county road. He began explaining how he and his father, Ish, hauled large rocks from the creek bed and laid for the road foundation, long before the county ever knew it existed.

Mrs. Ellie, Stephens’ wife of 61 years, was sitting on the front porch when we walked up and insisted we “come inside where it’s cool.”

Mr. Stephens was obviously content to stay outside where he’s spent much of his life working joyously with his hands in the dirt, but he agreed we would go in. I’ve only been married one-third as long as the Stephens, but I understood what his glance meant – we would do whatever Mrs. Ellie told us to.

As soon as we were inside, she insisted I sit in the big recliner, so I did. She took a seat on the adjacent couch and Mr. Stephens pulled up a plastic lawn chair right in front of me.

“So what you want to talk about?” he asked.

I congratulated him on the great honor from his church and he tilted his head and shrugged his shoulders. It wasn’t that he isn’t appreciative of the recognition, it’s just never been what motivated him.

Samuel Stephens loves to work, like few people I’ve met in my life. You can see it in his thick hands that according to legend could run a pop saw like “nobody’s business.”

His gray hair has gotten extremely thin, barely covering the top of his head, and his knee, which he first injured as a child more than 70 years ago when he fell out of a mule-pulled wagon and banged it on the wheel, was giving him some “good fits” this particular day. But his eyes, especially when he started talking about all the things he’d done in his life, had an unmistakable twinkle.

He shared stories of plowing fields with a team of mules from sunup to sundown. He spoke of milking cows, churning butter, raising chickens, killing hogs, cutting pulpwood, digging wells, mowing countless yards and cemeteries, working in a factory, working for the highway department  during the hottest days of summer, all as if they were the best of times, because that’s exactly what they were to him.

Samuel Stephens is the kind of man who can’t stand to see any job not done. And if that task is a true need for anyone, he drops what he’s doing to go take care of it. It didn’t matter if he was coming off a double shift at the chair plant, he just “did what needed doing.”

He never wanted any credit, just the opportunity to serve. He’s done that for his church, his community, for friends, family and perfect strangers – black, white, whatever.

He and Mrs. Ellie provided a home for 27 foster children through the years, adopting three as their own. They saw a need and took care of it best they could.

Mr. Stephens turns 82 next month. His bad knee is slowing him down, forcing him to lean on a cane sometimes, but his heart is still full speed ahead wanting to work, wanting to serve. We can’t all be “saints” like Stephens, but we can draw inspiration from them.

Joel McNeece is publisher of The Calhoun County Journal in Bruce. You may email him at joelmcneece@gmail.com.