OKEECHOBEE — Veteran Rodney Stevens was born and raised in Belle Glade and joined the Army in 1970, when he was 25 years old because he got into some trouble and had a choice of going into the service or into jail, and he made the logical choice, he said. His parents were well-respected business people in Belle Glade, and that was partly why he was given the option, he explained.
He started out as a wireman at Fort Jackson, where he did his basic training. He said wiremen run behind the infantry to set up communications. After that, he was transferred to Fort Gordon, Ga. and became a lineman running telephone wire for the units. He never had to go overseas, because by the time he went in, they were coming home from Vietnam, he said.
After he got out of the service, he went back to Belle Glade and applied for a telephone job, but they told him the training was not the same, so he did not get the job. He had a lot of trouble adjusting to civilian life and decided to go back into the service and ended up at the same place doing the same thing. He was in two years each time.
This time when he got out, he went to work for his parents, who owned rental property, a dry goods store, a drug store, a grocery store and a laundromat, but he still was not adjusting well, and he said to be real honest, he was a drunk. He picked up the bad habit of drinking while he was in the Army, and he just did not stop when he got home. He started getting in trouble, and he began looking around for something else to do.
He noticed the people who do seasonal work in the fields, and thought he would like to try that, so he decided to start with the corn season. He went to Missouri and then Pennsylvania. He found out picking was not the glamorous life he thought it was going to be. He didn’t know anything about pulling corn, he said. It taught him a lesson though, he said, he knew he couldn’t do that for the rest of his life, and with the help of a migrant program, he was able to get a job with the health department. The program was put in place to give migrant workers a new outlook on life, he explained. Back then, the people who left Belle Glade to work in the fields stayed in places like chicken coops, he said. It was a very difficult life. He liked the job with the health department, but when the first snow came in, he left and headed home to Florida.
In Clearwater, he became recreation director for HUD until they turned the program over to the City of Clearwater and then he went to work for Missouri Glass. He said he remembers the pay was $3.35 an hour when he started. After he worked there for four or five years, the owner, Danny Calhoun, came to him and said, “there are no blacks in the glass business. You should try it.” Well, he didn’t have a truck, but Mr. Calhoun told him to go find one, and Mr. Calhoun went and bought it for him. Mr. Stevens stayed there until he paid the Calhouns back, and then he went out on his own, and he has been doing it ever since, he said. Mr. Calhoun would throw away mirrors, and Mr. Stevens would redesign them and put them in people’s houses. “Then Mr. Calhoun started charging for the mirrors he was throwing away,” laughed Mr. Stevens. “Danny and Farah Calhoun were like a family to me. I will never forget them. Never.”
He went back to Belle Glade and opened up a shop, and at first, he was just doing mirrors but later started doing vertical blinds as well.
Before Mr. Stevens and his wife Shirlean Graham moved here, Mr. Stevens said he started out doing male and female revue shows over here. The first show they did was packed in an hour, he said, so he decided to come open up a business. He opened a nightclub called Rodney’s Place, and his wife opened a beauty salon/beauty supply by Bill’s Mini Mart. He also had a vertical blinds shop.
Then they started getting involved with kids and started the Chobee Steelers. He hauls the equipment around and keeps everyone safe. “I’m the mule,” he laughed.
He feels he has had a great life. Okeechobee has been nice to him, and he has a lot of great friends here. People ask him why he wants to live among the rednecks in Okeechobee, and he says, “Because I am one. Heehaw!”