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|Oh, the Things You Will Learn!|
Apr. 23rd, 2012 at 1:21 pm
When my husband and I were married college students with children, we took advantage of a little-known federal mortgage program that gave housing loans to low-income families. The goal was to keep rural towns alive at a time when people were fleeing the country to find jobs in the city. That is how we ended up in Windsor, Colorado and became friends with the most interesting older person we have ever met.
The older part is important because up until that time, we had no personal experience with anyone in retirement beyond grandparents and extended family. The crucial distinction is that with family, we knew their life stories but they knew little of our daily lives. Twenty-something kids just don’t have much in common with old folks. Or so we thought.
Forest “Stoney” Stonemets introduced himself at church shortly after we moved into our first house. He was average height, 5’9ish, with a full head of white hair and blue watery eyes that age sometimes brings. Wearing his Sunday suit it was impossible to detect his well-developed arm and leg muscles, born of years of hard work. He was chatty and curious, asking questions of us that signaled more than passing politeness.
A few weeks later we were walking back home from taking our young children to the city park when we passed Stoney working in his front yard, laying landscaping pavers to edge a profuse flower bed. We recognized each other and started a conversation. Stoney was wearing his out of church uniform, a white shirt with denim blue overalls. This would be the only clothes we would ever see him in around town. It made it easy to pick him out of the crowd at the various parades and community events that Stoney always seemed to be in charge of. To say Stoney was personable puts it mildly. He never met a stranger, just people who didn’t know him yet. Thus began our regular habit of stopping by his and his wife Doris’s house as we went about our business.
Doris was as reserved as Stoney was gregarious, so they made a perfect opposites-attract couple. As our friendships deepened into mentors/students over gardening, yard work and hornet nest displacement, Doris proved to be Stoney’s equal in every way. Their home reflected the frugality I had come to expect from my elders. It was a brick ranch, a little unusual because the brick went all the way around, not just a decorative front with wood siding on the sides and back. Their furniture was well-made and comfortable, about twenty years out-of –date. The interior walls were painted white, a practical color that required no upkeep and fuss. Our first impression was they were down-to-earth, straight shooting middle class neighbors.
That judgment began to change the day Stoney casually dropped by our house with a check for $150.00 that he said was from him and “Dodie” as a house warming gift. House warming? No one gave us gifts when we moved. Most of our acquaintances in the student housing apartment complex expressed disbelief when I mentioned I had applied for a cheap mortgage loan. They were annoyed when we received approval and began house hunting. When we actually moved out of our tiny two bedroom apartment into a ranch style house with a full basement and attached garage for the same monthly payment as our apartment, several called asking for more details of our financing. No one was really in the gift-giving mood.
We were overjoyed for Stoney and Dodie’s generosity. That was a lot of money for a retired couple to spend. It was obvious from looking at their only vehicle, a beat up cargo van and their plain styles of clothes that they were on a fixed income like everyone else we knew in retirement.
That gift broke the ice. Shortly after began the real life lessons taught by Stoney. He began by telling us about getting his first job during the Depression. He was sixteen years old, the only son in a family with four girls. He needed a job to help support his family. He asked at every business in Fort Collins, Colorado for a job. No one was hiring, especially a kid. He saw men working on the dock at the newspaper, loading trucks for delivery. Out of frustration and desperation he jumped in and started loading trucks along side the hired employees. After several hours the dock manager noticed him and asked what he was doing. He said, “Working, sir.” The manager said, “ I don’t have any work for you. I’m not paying you, so shove off.” That is when Stoney’s fast thinking saved him. He volunteered to work for the week for free and if the manager didn’t like what he saw, he didn’t have to hire him. The manager considered the offer and accepted. That was the beginning of Stoney’s career in newspapers. Within a year, at 17 years old, Stoney was promoted to his boss’s position as Circulation Manager.
Stoney turned out to be an excellent Circulation Manager. At a time when housewives were cutting every corner to save a penny, he managed to increase circulation by walking the streets, contacting every house without a current newspaper subscription. He countered their protests about not having money to spend on extras like newspapers by pointing out that in a weeks worth of newspapers were coupons and special discounts to readers that more than tripled the cost of subscription. Not only were they not saving money by discontinuing the paper, they were losing money by missing those deals! Only a fool wouldn’t subscribe to such a valuable tool for household management.
Stoney’s business sense included not only ways to increase sales, but his ideas on personal money-management. He married the first time in 1936, at age 22. He had his full-time job at the newspaper after quitting college. He spent three years studying engineering. The Depression years convinced him that an education wouldn’t guarantee success during hard times. He and his new bride moved into the cheapest place he could find, a converted chicken coop. She was willing, understanding it was temporary during those hard times. He controlled the money and gave her a weekly housing allowance. They didn’t have children during this time. She complained about their quarters, asking how much longer they were going to scrimp and suffer. Stoney would reply they were working towards the future. They lived there for five years.
That ended the day Stoney wasn’t as careful as he usually was. His wife was cleaning and rearranging their cramped quarters when she stumbled upon his hiding place. He had been stashing cash for their entire marriage. He had several thousands of dollars rolled up and rubber banded, waiting for him to decide it was the right time. When he came home, his wife was in full rage. She had been humiliated and treated like a second class citizen while he was sitting on a small fortune. That was the end of their marriage.
Stoney left to serve in WWII. The divorce became official while he was at sea as a Navy Radioman. When he returned three years later, he discovered his ex-wife had opened charge accounts at businesses in town and ran them up. She even charged a fur coat. He didn’t fight her, but instead made arrangements to make payments. It took years to pay off the debt. After the war Stoney returned to his job at the newspaper as the Circulation Manager.
Stoney married Doris in 1948 when he was 34. By then he had saved another small stash of cash. He had learned from his first marriage and this time made sure they lived in a proper house and Doris was included in the finances. She worked as a telephone operator, expecting to quit when they had a child. Early on in her employment she earned the reputation “rich bitch” from her coworkers because on payday she forgot to pick up her check. No one reminded her until a week later. The fact she wasn’t desperate for the money told everyone she didn’t need it. She never got pregnant and eventually retired from the phone company.
As Stoney watched his fellow GI’s come home from war and attempt to get houses, he saw an opportunity. He bought his first investment property and instead of becoming a landlord, he sought out someone who needed a house but didn’t have a big enough down payment for the bank. He offered his house for $100 down and with a very small interest rate, way better than the bank. If the person didn’t make the payments, they would be evicted and the house resold. By the time we met Stoney, he had over 50 properties he received monthly payments from. He liked to give loans to young families with children, giving them an opportunity that otherwise would not be available. Three young married couples in our ward had mortgages held by Stoney. He told us he had only had one default over the years.
At age 42 Stoney joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He had been a prominent member of his previous Christian church and looked forward to helping his new religious community. At the time Church members had to drive over the Wasatch Mountains to Utah to attend the temple. Once a year the stake would caravan to do temple work. Stoney saw an opportunity to serve. He used his own money and purchased a touring bus, Greyhound style, for the stake to use for trips. The problem was he didn’t ask for approval. Some of the men in leadership were offended, thinking Stoney was showing off his wealth. The stake declined his gift. Stoney sadly sold the bus, not knowing how to change their minds. They just couldn’t see the benefits of such a handsome way to serve the Lord.
Stoney was well into his 70’s when we knew him. We moved away after Rob graduated and we lost touch with Stoney and Dodie. Forest “Stoney” Stonemets died at age 88 in 2003. When he passed through the veil I am convinced Jesus met him saying,“ Well done, my good and faithful servant.”