The Heroines

Julia L. Stephan

is honored with a Medium Bench from Donald Stephan, Robert Stephan, and Jeanette Stephan George.

 Julia L. Stephan On August 18, 1913, in the small community of Las Animas, CO, Humdumie Shaded Stevens gave birth to her third child, Julia. Humdumie ("Minnie") and her husband, Joseph, both immigrated from Lebanon, eventually settling in Las Animas, where they opened a dry goods store. Joseph became ill with pneumonia and died six months after Julia's birth, leaving Humdumie alone with two toddlers, George and Joseph Jr., and their new baby sister. Joseph's brother, Ellis George, had recently arrived in the United States and was in Las Animas during this critical time. Eventually, he and Humdumie were married and moved to Grenola, KS, and then to Wichita. Humdumie and E.G. were blessed with three sons, Roy, Fred and Raymond. Julia grew up with a very large extended family, in a home that was always open to visiting priests or recently arrived immigrants from Lebanon.

Julia's young life revolved around church, attending school at Franklin Elementary and Allison Intermediate until the eighth grade, when she quit school to work full-time at her father's tobacco and candy distribution company, E.G. Stevens Tobacco Co. From a fledgling beginning, delivering from the back of a car, the company grew to be the largest such operation in the state. Julia's job was primarily to maintain the books and help raise her three baby brothers. Her independent streak became apparent when she and her cousin, Dolly Razook, would sneak off to go dancing with some of the older girls even though dancing was taboo at the time.

Julia had a natural talent for music and could play any tune on the piano just by listening to a melody. Many evenings the family would gather and listen to her play Arabic tunes and sing the songs from her parents' homeland. As was the custom in the Lebanese-American community, Julia's Uncle Frank arranged a marriage for her, with Mike Stephan's 25-year-old brother, Taft, from Ft. Wayne, IN, although they had met only a few times. Julia was married in 1931 at the age of 17. The young couple started a grocery store at 9th and Cleveland in Wichita and lived in the back of the store. Beginning in 1933, Julia would have a child each of the next three years: Robert, Don and Jeanette. After Robert was born, they sold the store and moved to Ft. Wayne, though they returned to Wichita within a year. Taft then opened up the Tropicana night club on West Douglas, with Julia preparing the food at home and delivering it. The club closed when it was destroyed by fire.

Julia and Taft in 1942 opened Taft's Super Market at Meridian and Second, which turned out to be an extremely successful venture during the war years. Julia did the majority of buying, and the business acumen she had displayed during the years she'd worked for her father became apparent when her shrewd purchasing often meant the grocery store would have merchandise that was unavailable in other stores in the area. That grocery store was still operating when, to eliminate a competitor, she purchased Kibbe Grocery at the corner of Third and Meridian in about 1948. At that location she and Taft started Stephan Variety Store, a neighborhood store and soda fountain stocked with everything from children's clothes and patterns to a greater selection of buttons than that offered by Woolworth's. Her variety store was so successful, the owner of Ben Franklin's tried to talk Julia into joining him in a merger in Wichita. Julia and Taft were not as successful, however, with the purchase of a mobile home park on Greenway Boulevard. The ending of the war and Boeings' subsequent reduction in employment made it a difficult time for that business.

Taft's alcoholism, gambling and abuse made the marriage an extremely tumultuous one, but Julia managed to keep the family together until the last child had graduated from high school. She and Taft were divorced in 1951, the beginning of another difficult time as divorce was still relatively rare, especially for Lebanese-American women. However, she was able to call on her inner strength, independence and ingenuity as she moved on with her life.

The grocery store had to be sold though the variety store stayed open for a number of years. Julia wasn't willing to give up the mobile home park without a fight so she poured her energy into a then-novel concept: rent-to-own. She knew she couldn't rent the lots because they were too small so she decided to buy small outdated mobile homes and rent them on a weekly basis, agreeing to sell them if the renter stayed for a specific amount of time. Deeply in debt, she was turned down repeatedly for a loan and told her idea was doomed to failure. Finally, a loan officer at Fourth National told her the idea wouldn't work but gave her the seed money anyway. Her mobile homes filled 50 spaces, and winter and summer Julia could be seen outside checking the electric meters or thawing pipes with a blow torch.

When the park began to make a profit, she bought old homes and turned them into rental property. One of the properties on St. Francis Street was eventually sold to Printing, Inc. She invested in the stock market and converted her basement into two rental apartments. And her determination and hard work paid off: she retired at the age of 65 with enough assets to maintain a quite comfortable lifestyle. Without a doubt, she was a feminist before anyone really knew what it meant, and she had proved without a doubt she could succeed in a man's world.

Julia was a very strong and motivated person. She organized a book-of-the-month club and would have each member of the group report on a book they had read. One of the greatest times of her life was when she started an Arabic class and served as its instructor. Though no one had ever taught her the language she could speak fluent Arabic and was extremely proud of her heritage. She also took great pride that each of her children achieved the dreams of education she hadn't realized for herself: Robert graduated from Washburn Law School, Don from Wichita State University, and Jeanette attended Lindenwood in St. Charles, MO.. At the age of 81, Julia's activity was cut short following a fall that broke her hip in 1994. Shortly after, she fell and injured the other hip, making driving impossible.

In addition to her independent and determined spirit, she gave to each of her children in 1979 a statement which summed up her philosophy in life. It read, in part:

"Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.... Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals and everywhere there is heroism. Be yourself, especially do not feign affection.... Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. Yet do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.... And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all the sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy."

Submitted by her children Robert, Donald and Jeanette

September 16, 1998