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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Willett dedicates 50 years of service to hospital

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Evelyn Willett
Evelyn Willett, 82, has been a fixture in the Salem community for over 50 years, serving the public every step of the way and helping pioneer the way for the Fulton County Hospital, past and future.

Evelyn was born in Olden, Mo., in 1926, but said she grew up near West Plains.

"We lived out in the country and lived a country life," she said.

Living in the country was all Evelyn knew and the day to day hardships some might see were normal parts of life in rural Missouri.

"Of course, we didn't know we were poor. Whatever we had my folks could make good use of it. So, we didn't realize it. We didn't have any money but we had a good time. We always had plenty to eat and plenty to wear," she said.

"I started working at Richards Brothers Store in Pomona, Mo., when I was 12-years-old," Evelyn said.

She worked after school until 9 p.m. and all day on Saturday but her parents were reluctant to let her work on Sunday, she said.

"The money I got from that I gave to my mother to buy supplies that we needed, sugar, salt, corn meal, flour and things like that. I had two sisters and two brothers and I divided with them so they could have candy on Saturday when they came to the store. They could buy a nickel bag of candy, a big bag. One would buy candy and one of them would buy gum. The other would buy something else and they would all share," she said. "So, I have worked for the public since I was 12-years-old."

Evelyn said she would have graduated from Willow Springs High School but she lacked two credits. She then went to college at Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar, Mo., where she completed her education.

"I had to work hard but I didn't mind. Our folks taught us how to work," she said.

After graduating from Southwest Baptist, Evelyn became a teacher in Dry Creek, Mo., where she taught for five years.

"I made $75 a month and I thought I was rich," she said.

During that time she met her future husband, Kenneth Willett, while square dancing, she said.

"We danced as partners for a year before we ever dated. It was always early in the morning when we would get in and one morning his sister and brother-in-law were with us and she said for me to go have breakfast with him," Evelyn said.

Evelyn was going to her parent's house for the weekend and after breakfast Kenneth insisted that he take her to her destination. Otherwise, she would have had to take a taxicab, she said.

Kenneth also told her that she would not have to call a taxicab to return because he would be there to pick her up Sunday.

"He had a 1939 Roadster with rumble seats. It was cute as could be but he said, 'Are you embarrassed to ride in this car?' I told him I didn't mind a bit and he said, 'Well, let's go out to eat this week,'" Evelyn recalled.

Later that week, Kenneth arrived for their date just like he had promised except Evelyn said something was different.

"When he came he had a brand new car. He said, 'You probably didn't want to ride in that other one.' Well, I didn't mind at all," she said with a laugh.

That moment was a stepping-stone that led the couple to marriage, not to mention more square dancing, she said.

She was working as a teacher when the couple married in 1948, but an illness led Evelyn to resign. The two decided to move to Lanton, Mo., where they bought a general store.

"It was very successful for a little country store," she said.

In 1949, the couple welcomed their daughter Sharon and soon after in 1951, they welcomed their son, future Fulton County Judge Charles Willett.

After running the store for several years, Kenneth decided he wanted to build a sale barn in Salem.

"So, he started building a sale barn and we had to sell the farm, the cattle and the store and we came to Salem in 1959. We opened the sale barn in 1960," she said. That was the birth of the Salem Livestock Auction, she said.

After running the sale barn for about four years, Kenneth became ill and had to sell the business. "We sold it but I have always worked there, I still work there," she said.

"At that time Charles was a real good basketball player. He was a born natural and that is all there is to it. So, we went everywhere for his games and one night I started to his ball game and the phone rang. This gentleman said, "Mrs. Willett, Mack Harbour."

The man on the other end of the line was Mack Harbour, the first Fulton County Hospital administrator, she said.

"Harbour said, 'I want you to meet me at the hospital tomorrow at 2 p.m. in the new hospital, we are fixing to open it. ' He told me he wanted me to be the manager of his dietary department and I told him I couldn't and he said, 'Oh, yes you can. I will see you tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the hospital,' and he hung up. So, I talked to Kenneth about it. He wasn't real excited, but anyway, I went," she said.

When Evelyn arrived at the hospital the following day, Harbour handed her a diet manual, a dietary magazine, and told her he had already enrolled her in school to be a nutritionist.

She took on the task and never looked back, she said.

Raising a daughter and a son, who she said shared very different personalities, was interesting if anything else, she said. Evelyn recalled some of the antics of a young Charles Willett.

"Mr. Stroud, the superintendent at this time, there where 12 boys and they called them the dirty dozen. Well, Mr. Stroud despised them, oh, he despised them," she said. "He would always try to get their teacher, Mr. John Bray, to fail them."

"So, I was working at the sale barn one afternoon and this car drove up and it was full of boys, plus. They were all over the front, they were hanging onto the windows and Charles said, 'Mother, come here.' Well, I knew something was up. I knew it. He said, 'We just stole Mr. Stroud's paddle.' They had, too,' Evelyn said.

"They had stolen his paddle that he used to spank them with. They took it back to school and gave it to Mr. Bray and he had a wall plaque made out of it and they all signed it. Mr. Bray said he wouldn't take anything in the world for that. Mr. Stroud, he would try and make Mr. Bray whop the boys and he would give them a paddle or two and then give them a quarter and tell them, 'Go buy a coke now.' When they stole that paddle, I thought I would choke to death," she said laughing.

"We thought they wouldn't graduate for sure, but their grades were too good to fail," she said.

Evelyn said her daughter Sharon studied constantly and worked hard and enjoyed her alone time while Charles liked to have a lot of friends around him.

"Charles had a houseful constantly," she said. "She had friends but she didn't want them all around her all the time," she said smiling. "We always had a good time with our kids."

At the Fulton County Hospital before the doors even opened, Evelyn said she fell in love with the work and the facility itself. "When we first opened, and I have the magazine where it came out, we where the first rural all-electric hospital in the state of Arkansas. We started out with 12 beds, and then it went to 22, I believe. In a little while they increased it again," she said.

Evelyn said she has always worked two or three jobs at a time, including the hospital, sale barn and two horse auctions both in Salem and in Mountain Grove.

Evelyn worked for the dietary department for 32 years before she had a car accident in 1993 that left her unable to work for over eight months. She said she then began working in the nutritional counseling and home health field.

"I met some of the most wonderful people in home health. They were just precious. They were so appreciative of everything you did for them. It was really interesting to do that and it felt good to know you were helping somebody," she said.

"It was just a pleasure when you had done something for somebody that you thought they appreciated," she said.

The new addition to the Fulton County Hospital really gives Evelyn a sense of pride after being a part of the hospital for so many years.

"It is prettier then anything in this area, even the larger ones," she said.

Evelyn said since she retired over a year ago, she has been enjoying her family.

"I spend most of my time reading and sewing. I really love to cook for the family," she said.

Although officially retired, Evelyn said she still keeps the books for the Mountain Grove Livestock Auction. "But they bring me all the material now to my house," she said, "but for the one in Salem, I still work it personally."

Working in Salem today is much different than years past, she said.

"There were stores all around the square. It has been sad to see it go down like it has. It is a pleasure to see something open up again, and hopefully it will be a success," Evelyn said. "I saw the shirt factory go out. I saw the milk plant go out. I worked at the cheese plant quite awhile when it first opened and I saw it leave," she said.

Being in the Salem community for so long, Evelyn has developed a deep appreciation for what some might take for granted.

"One time there was a lady and she was kind of downing the shirt factory and I said, 'Don't down the shirt factory to me. That puts food on people's table and clothes on their back.' The shirt factory made a big impact when it went out," she said.

Out of the colorful tapestry that is the life of Evelyn Willett and the many obstacles in her path, she said the most difficult challenge was juggling providing for her family and raising them too.

"When my husband became ill and couldn't work, I had to pick up all the financial part. The challenge was being able to send my children to college so they could have an education. The good Lord just helped me meet all of it," she said.

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Evelyn is a beautiful lady and an inspiration to me as CEO of Fulton County Hospital. I value her input and wisdom.

Angie Richmond

-- Posted by arichmond on Tue, Jul 22, 2008, at 9:57 PM

Congratulations on your 50 years of service, Evelyn, or 'Mrs. Willett' as we were instructed to address each other on our first day of work by 'Mr. Harbour'. 'Remembering when' brings back fond memories of those earlier days (I mean years.. where has the time gone). Also, our first employee meal in the dining room being served 'family style' by you.

Gwen Baldridge Stroud

-- Posted by Gwenora on Thu, Jul 24, 2008, at 3:07 PM

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