Possibly one of the most interesting and popular selections ever as Grand Marshal for the 2017 Ox Cart Days Parade, Bette Stephens, is sure to draw a big crowd of family and friends at this year's event Sunday, Aug. 20. Apparently Stephens has already signed several autographs and has been advised to practice her wave by her children.
Mother, bus driver, limo driver, business owner, bookkeeper, bowler, golfer, dancer and poker player, where should we begin?
Born in 1932 the third daughter to Clarence and Kathryn Brennan, Stephens grew up on a farm in Emerald along with 14 siblings: 11 girls and three boys.
"We had cows, pigs, and chickens. I milked cows, picked mustard out of the fields and drove the tractor. I enjoyed it. There were so many of us, we always had something to do," said Stephens.
At the age of 12, Stephens and company moved to New Richmond where her father worked for Doughboy Feeds and her mother worked at the hospital.
Stephens remembers attending country school before finishing up at the old high school in New Richmond. She remembers registering at the country school with her mother and three sisters, doubling the enrollment at the time, which consisted of four boys. The school housed grades 1-8, all taught by a single teacher.
"Four boys and four girls, grades 1-8. The teacher was so happy. We fit right in the same grades the boys were in, second, fourth, sixth and eighth, so she didn't have to change any of her plans. I don't think the boys were as excited as we were," recalled stephens.
Bette married Don Stephens, right out of high school and together they had four children: Kathryn, Greg, Don and Karen.
"Don was my high school sweetheart. We got married at St. Patrick's Church in New Richmond. He was a very handsome guy. It was love at first sight. He was a neat, neat guy," said Bette.
Don and Bette owned Stephens Sanitation until Don passed away too young at the age of 35 from cancer.
Bette sold the sanitation business two years later to her brother-in-law and went on to hold a number of different jobs in the intervening years as she raised her family by herself, including a son with Cerebral Palsy.
Getting her start on a farm, Bette knew the meaning of hard work. She started working at the Jack Sprat Grocery Store while still in high school, went on to do bookkeeping for the Central Lumber Company after graduation, then onto window decorating for JCPenney, eventually moving upstairs into the office and finally bookkeeping for her own sanitation business. After she sold the sanitation business she drove a school bus for nine years, then a limo for Doughboy and finally ended her working career as the owner of the Ben Franklin Store for four years before retiring.
Somewhere along the way, Bette found her niche. She really liked to drive.
"I like to drive. I've been driving since I was 14 on the farm, maybe younger. I learned to drive on a stick shift. Taught my kids on a stick. I drove school bus for nine years. That was a good schedule to have with the kids. At Doughboy, I had to go to the airport all the time to meet different clients coming into town. Never got any tips, just a "thank you." I really enjoyed that," said Bette.
At 85, Bette still likes to drive to Green Bay for Packer games, to Milwaukee, to Florida and to the Cities to shop with her sisters neither of whom drives at all.
The other thing Bette likes to do is, play cards, lots of cards.
"When we were married, we had a card club, four couples. We'd have dinner and drinks and play into the wee hours of the morning. I like card playing. I play every card game there is, euchre, cribbage, and poker. For 43 years I was part of a poker club with six girls. We played for money. We'd play the first Monday of every month. You'd end up entertaining twice a year. Only two of us are left," said Bette.
If you ask around the bars in town about playing cards with Bette, you are likely to hear, "I'm not playing with her. She likes to take your money."
You can still find her playing cards Wednesday afternoons, just watch your wallet.
Bette moved to Star Prairie in 2000. Her son Don had been keeping an eye on a house on the Apple River not too far downstream from the trout farm. When it came up for sale, he brought Bette over for a look to see what she thought of the place.
"Well I love it. Beautiful view out onto the river," Bette remembered.
"I think I'm going to buy it and you're going to live here," said Don.
"Luckily, my son made me do it," said Bette.
Bette still loves listening to the sound of the river through her patio door but that is not all she loves about her 17 years in Star Prairie.
"I've lived here for 17 years. I felt very welcome as soon as I moved in, just my son and me. It's a very friendly little town. I'm very comfortable going downtown. They're super people, I have a lot of fun with them," said Bette.
After 17 years living alongside the river, Bette found out she is going to be the Grand Marshal of the Ox Cart Days Parade.
"I was down at the Apple River Bar with my son, daughter, daughter-in-law and my two grand kids. Chris (Boardman) came up and said, 'Bette, I have to ask you a question and you can't say no,' and I said, 'No.' She said, 'Our committee got together and we want you to be the Grand Marshal of Ox Cart Days.' I said, 'No way.' She said, 'You're already in.' Tears came down my cheeks and my son came over and he asked, 'What happened?' Chris said, 'I just asked your mom to be Grand Marshal.' Well then, he hugged me and gave me congratulations, and my daughter congratulated me and my two grandchildren bowed to me. I was just honored to be asked," said Bette.
Celebrity starts with family for Bette. Between kids, grandkids, great grandkids, and brothers and sisters spread out from Hudson to the Cities and beyond, Bette's expecting a big turnout for the parade.
"I'm very excited and I've gotten comments from so many people. They're all happy for me. Most of my sisters from the Cities will be here. My sisters from Hudson, New Richmond and Somerset, my kids and grandkids, I know they're coming to the parade There should be a lot. We'll have to stay downtown for a while after the parade, but we're going to have a big party afterward. I've had my ups and downs, but I have to say, life has been good to me," said Bette.
Asked if she had given any thought to her wardrobe for the parade, Bette said, "I'm kind of a glittery person."
Glittery in a good way.