This story appeared in the Florida Times-Union on November 12, 2019. Click here for the original feature article.
By Mark Woods
When he turned 18, Willie Deas couldn’t count to 10. But Fred Martin, founder of Martin Coffee Co., gave him a chance, hiring him to do some odd jobs. Fifty years later, he’s still working for the Talleyrand company.
Willie Deas grew up on the Northside of Jacksonville, seemingly destined to spend his life separated from society.
When he reached adulthood, he couldn’t read or write or count to 10. There wasn’t much hope or expectation of him having a career. He had spent part of his childhood in an institution near Gainesville, a place established by the state in 1919 and originally named the Florida Farm Colony for the Epileptic and Feeble Minded.
He calls Sunland a school. But in those days, it still was a time when people were sent away — with the expectation they’d likely stay away.
When Deas turned 18, though, his life took an unexpected twist.
Fred Martin, who opened the Martin Coffee Company in downtown Jacksonville in 1957, was about to lose a couple of longtime employees to retirement. He asked one of them if he knew someone who’d be interested in a part-time job, maybe a young guy who could lift heavy coffee bags and sweep the floors.
The employee mentioned someone who lived next door to him. The neighbor kid had been born with some intellectual and developmental challenges but, the employee said, he might be a good hire if given the chance.
Little did anyone know.
Willie Deas turned 68 last week. He also celebrated 50 years of working at Martin Coffee.
He semi-retired two years ago, but a couple of days a week he still gets up at 4:30 a.m., rides his bike a few blocks to the Desert Rider, puts on the coffee and a pot of grits. The restaurant opens at 6. He catches up with the staff. Then, at 7, someone from Martin Coffee picks him up and takes him to the Talleyrand plant, where he works until noon.
Last week Martin Coffee had a surprise for him for his 50 years of employment.
First, though, he worked his usual shift.
Ben Johnson, grandson of Fred Martin and current company president, talked about his longtime employee while Deas was busy working — lifting and emptying large bags of unroasted beans, climbing a ladder and dumping roasted beans into a machine, putting small bags of coffee into boxes.
Asked how long he’s known Deas, the company president’s answer is a reminder that the question for him and nearly everyone else there should be flipped: How long has Deas known them?
“He’s been here five years longer than I’ve been alive,” Johnson said. “I’m 45 and he’s known me since I was born. He’s like family.”
After 50 years, Deas still doesn’t really have a job title — partly because he does all the jobs.
“He’s a jack of all trades,” Johnson said. “He’ll see something that needs to be done and before I even mention it, he’ll have it done. I’ll be in my office and I’ll see him out mowing the lawn. He’ll say, ‘I just wanted to get it done before it starts raining.’”
It’s not just that he’s dependable. Soon after he was first hired, they learned that while Willie had some challenges, he also had some gifts. For instance, he could listen to the more than 20 motors on the processing line and just by the sound tell when one needed attention.
“He’s brilliant,” Johnson said. “Once he’s doing something, he’s like a robot.”
Well, a robot with personality. Part of his connection to those at his workplace clearly is his upbeat personality. He’s happy to be there.
“He loves it,” said Josephine Davis, one of his sisters on hand for the surprise. “But I think it’s more than just the company. He feels like that machine is his baby. He’s got to do it.”
After he finished working, Deas walked through a doorway and found family, friends, co-workers and media waiting for him.
Johnson presented Deas with a plaque, then they brought out a large box, wrapped up with a bow.
Deas tore off the paper and found a 50-inch television for his 50th anniversary. He talked about using it to watch his favorite shows, like “Judge Judy.” He also talked about being back at work the next Monday morning.
“I feel good,” he said, adding with a smile. “I look good for my age.”
He won’t get any arguments about that. He’s still picking up bags of coffee that weigh nearly as much as he does. And a few years ago, when they were getting fitted for staff uniforms, there was some debate about whether Willie wore a small or medium. He took off his shirt to try on a small and — Johnson recalls with a laugh — they looked at his six-pack abs and said, “Whoa, Willie!”
Whatever he’s been doing for the last 50 years has worked. For his body and his mind. The latter is what he mentioned when asked why he keeps working.
“To keep my mind going,” he said. “I love my job too much to quit.”
Sarah Troup was among those on hand for the surprise. She’s a manager at Connectable. After attending an event in 2017, the Delores Barr Weaver funded a campaign to highlight the stories of local individuals with intellectual and developmental differences. Martin Coffee and Willie Deas, Troup said, is a great example of a Connectablestory.
“This business decision has [been a win-win for] the business as much as the employee,” she said.
The business and the world have changed in many ways in the last 50 years. For instance, now Martin takes beans from all over the world and makes all kinds of blends. The company soon will be making a new specialty blend. This one won’t be headed for another restaurant or hotel.
Sally Hazelip, head of the North Florida School of Special Education, drank some Martin Coffee while having her car serviced at a dealership. She liked the coffee and contacted Martin to ask about using it in one of their Berry Good Farms programs — a coffee cart run by students.
Johnson agreed to do more than that.
If anyone knows these students have potential, it’s the family of Fred Martin.
Johnson donated some equipment. The company will make a special roast for the school. Students will be invited to tour the plant and meet one of the people making the coffee — Willie Deas.