Port William is not the same town it was when I grew up there. Minnie’s (later Julie’s) Restaurant is gone. Jim Edwards’ Café is just a memory. Little Gib now proudly stands where many used to sit and drink.
The water pump with the tin cup hanging on a wire that most men, women and children used in the village is long gone, although the well is still there. On those hot summer days after a baseball game, no one gave a second thought to drinking the pure well water from the same public cup.
The Health Department, however, frowned on the idea of everyone in town drinking from the same cup, and stopped the practice many years ago.
Maynard Beam’s giant grain bins now sit atop the old Port William High School, buried deep, along with a host of memories. I called Maynard when I heard they were tearing down the school and asked him if I could have a brick as a souvenir. “Sure, just don’t take them all,” he said.
There is one place in town that time has treated well. The outside of the old Stephens’ Hardware looks the same as it did when I was ten years old, with the exception of the wooden planks in the windows to discourage the curious.
If I peek through the windows hard enough, I can see some items still on the shelves, and the corner where Wil, Billy and Cy Stephens kept the baseball equipment.
The Haley Family loves baseball. Most of the family played the game. Some played professionally. We all loved the Cincinnati Redlegs, too.
The early 1960s was a great time to be a Redleg fan. My favorite player was Vada Pinson, the swift center fielder who could run like the wind. I stopped in the post office every morning and asked Postmaster Clarence “Sleepy” Sanders if I could read the box scores in the Journal Herald. I always looked to see how many hits Vada had the night before.
One summer day I walked downtown to the visiting Bookmobile, parked under a giant shade tree, and checked out a book about a Boston Red Sox player, Jimmy Piersall. Leaving the Bookmobile, I decided to stop at Stephens’ Hardware and look over the baseball gear. As soon as I walked in the door, I saw it! A Vada Pinson autographed baseball bat.
Billy Stephens was working that afternoon and came over to where I was standing. “Pat, would you like to take a few swings?” Billy asked.
“I sure would,” I replied as Billy handed me the bat. I swung the bat as hard as was acceptable indoors, but I needed more room.
“Do you mind if I go on the sidewalk and take a couple of swings?” I asked Billy.
“You go ahead,” he responded with a smile. “Take your time and take some good swings.”
I must have stood on the sidewalk in front of the Hardware for fifteen minutes swinging away. Finally, I took the bat back inside and handed it to Billy.
“How much does the bat cost?” I asked Billy.
He told me. It might as well have been a million dollars. I had no money, but I sure liked that bat.
“Do you still deliver the Dayton Daily News?” Billy asked me.
“Yes, I do,” I replied.
“How much do you make per week delivering papers?” Billy asked.
“One dollar and seventy-five cents,” I said with a smile.
“I tell you what I will do. If you bring me one dollar a week until the bat is paid off, it’s yours,” he said.
I could not believe what I had just heard. I jumped straight up in the air and ran out the front screen door of the hardware store.
“Don’t forget your bat!” Billy yelled through the door.
I could not believe Billy trusted me enough to let me take the bat home before I’d paid it off.
I never missed a payment. Every Monday after collecting on Saturday, I walked into the hardware store and paid Billy Stephens a dollar. I forget how long it took me to pay it off. It doesn’t matter. At the time, I would have paid Billy for ten years just to have a bat signed by my baseball hero.
Last Memorial Day, I had my picture taken with Billy Stephens in front of the Port William cemetery near the old water pump. Billy was wearing the same uniform he’d worn during his military service, and we stood there with big grins and our arms around each other. It’s hard to describe the feeling I get whenever I am around Billy. He was an important part of my life when I was just a kid.
Billy probably doesn’t remember the loan. I never saw him write it down on paper. But I do. I have never forgotten the kindness Billy Stephens showed a young boy many years ago.
He did it because he has always been a good man. And good men are hard to find.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.