Everybody in the Heartland Has a Story: Cheryl Stephens - KFVS12 News & Weather Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, Poplar Bluff

Everybody in the Heartland Has a Story: Cheryl Stephens

OLMSTED, IL (KFVS) -

Ever been asked if you've been saved?

Most of the time people are talking about your relationship with God. But you know people, even towns, can be saved.

Take Olmsted, Illinois for example where locks, those that direct barge traffic, and those that grow out of our heads, saved the town and its only hairdresser.

In the gray, choppy waters of the Ohio River just off Pulaski County, sits one of the largest civil works projects undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers; the Olmsted Locks and Dam Project.

A barge's length away, is the project's namesake.

With its tidy streets, bustling restaurant, and downtown anchored by a historic depot, Olmsted has an energy that is absent in many small towns. But then, most small towns don't have a billion dollar plus government project floating in their backyard. No one argues that the Locks and Dam saved this town of 300 from despair.

Speaking of “locks,” Cheryl Stephens has been tending to the locks of Olmsted residents for 34 years.

"I always liked doing hair," she said with a smile.

It was a career born of tragedy. In 1977, Cheryl's husband died of a massive heart attack in their living room. He was 24.

Cheryl recalled the day.

"I had a friend who did CPR to no avail," she said. "They never revived him."

Cheryl was a 24-year-old widow with a six-year-old son and a three-month-old daughter.

She went back to school to learn how to cut hair.

"I had to support myself and my children," she said.

Four years later, Cheryl's Hair Care was open for business.

Her father, an Illinois State Trooper, built the shop on the back of her home so Cheryl could work and take care of her children.

"The kids would come home from school and say, 'This house stinks.' I'd say, 'It smells like money to me,'" Cheryl remembered.

Life, though often a struggle, went on for Cheryl.

With the help of her parents and sisters, she raised Brad and Leah.

Then, in 1985, she went on a blind date with Gary Stephens.

A year later, they married.

Four years later, almost to the day, tragedy would strike again.

Cheryl remembered the night with tears in her eyes, "The same man who buried my husband buried my son."

Two days shy of his 20th birthday, and 3 miles from home, Brad hit a deer, lost control of his car and was struck by an oncoming dump truck.

Cheryl's father had gone to the accident scene. He later found Cheryl at her sister's house.

"Dad said, 'There's been an accident and Brad is dead.' I said no, 'That can't be,'" she said.

Brad's funeral was on New Year's Eve.

"I thought losing a husband was bad. That didn't even touch it. There's nothing like losing your child," Cheryl said through her tears.

Cheryl eventually returned to work in her shop. People needed her and she needed them.

"I needed a reason to get up. I have the best customers. No one ever told me not to talk about it," remarked Cheryl.

Like her clients, Cheryl isn't getting any younger.

Still, at age 62, she has no plans to sheath the scissors.

She laughs when she predicts she'll die behind the chair her clients sit in to get their hair styled.

In the course of a lifetime, there are moments we save others and those when we are saved.

The Locks and Dam project saved Olmsted from the decline that is palpable in so many small towns. And the place where people go to tend to their locks, cuts, color and conversation, saved Cheryl.

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