Friday, June 5, 2009

True Confessions

by Jean Henry Mead

One of my first and favorite interviews was with Betty Evenson, a 5 ft. 1 inch, 69-year-old grandmother who lived alone in the miniscule town of Hiland, Wyoming.

Betty ran the Bright Spot Café, post office and gas station (three pumps in front of the store). Her main customers on the lonely highway between Casper and the Utah border were truckers, bus drivers and occasional vacationers. So she spend her time between customers writing stories for confession magazines.

Betty had that kind of face that invited confidence and people told her their deepest secrets. “I was a like a bartender,” she said. “I never heard anything.” But she wrote about what she heard and sold the stories. Once, she wrote about a regular customer, a truck driver, who told her about his love affair.

“His wife happened to pick up the confession magazine in a beauty shop, and she knew the story had been written about her husband,” Betty said, cringing. “Boy, was he mad.” Another time, a husband and wife confessed to her on separate occasions. Both stories came out back-to-back in the same issue. Fortunately for Betty, neither spouse read the magazine.

Another story was written about a frightening event that happened at the Bright Spot. She was watching “The F.B. I.” on television, so engrossed in the show that she didn’t hear the sound of breaking glass in the front of the store, adjacent to her three-room apartment. Suddenly, the action was taking place in her living room. A well-built, stocking-masked man was pointing a gun at her, threatening to blow off the top of her head if she didn’t open the safe. She was afraid she’d forget the combination, but her trembling fingers managed to unlock it. The bandit made off with $400-$500 in cash, her diamond engagement ring and 50-cent piece collection. But first he ordered her into the bathoom and locked the door.

She listened to the TV until it went off the air, trying to figure a way out of her porcelain prison. The window was tiny, much too small to crawl through, but she yelled out of it each time a car went by. No one heard. At 7 o’clock the following morning the mailman rescued her. Then 64, she incorporated the experience into a story titled “Too Many Men Knew I Lived Alone.” The facts were rearranged and the heroine’s age was sliced by more than half: her 80th story sold to a confession magazine.

Phil Donahue heard about Betty and invited her to appear on his show. She also appeared on Garry Moore’s “To Tell the Truth,” both in 1973. Andrew Malcolm wrote about her in his book, Unknown America and traveling reporters from the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and The New York Times made her famous. Headlines across the country read, “Widow’s Torrid Love Scenes,” “She Sells Gas, Food and Sex,” “Lonely Plains Café Hides Profilic Author,” etc.

Phil Donahue decided to make an example of her. “He felt that confession stories were pornographic,” she said. “When the commercials were on, he let me talk about my life and my nonfiction book about the Bright Spot. Then, as quick as the cameras came on he tried to make me look like a country hick.”

A woman in the audience kept heckling her. “I’m sure she was a plant. She was a real sour pickle, and nobody could shake her from her conviction that I had to have a sick mind to write confessions.”

Betty inherited the Bright Spot from her father, Robert “Dad” Smith, who moved his family around a lot due to business failures, from sheep ranching to furniture retailing, due to overextending credit to his customers. Finally, the Wyoming Highway Department decided to build a road through his property—right through the middle of his milk barn. A philiosophical and romantic man, he replied, “Oh, well, I hate cows anyway.” He then built The Bright Spot in 1923, near the location his dairy barn once stood. As it turned out, the business was the bright spot of his life for it made him prosperous. His customers were just passing through and not seeking credit. Smith’s success was short-lived, however, for he suffered a ruptured appendix in 1931, undergoing surgery on his kitchen table. He survived the operation but succumbed to pneumonia.

Not long before her father’s death, her parents took a vacation, leaving Betty and the hired man alone. “We had to get married,’ Betty said, “to stay there and run the store.” Together, they operated the store and café for many years until Maurice Evenson died, leaving Betty the sole resident of Hiland, Wyoming, and proprietor of the Bright Spot.

(Excerpted from my Denver Post Empire Magazine article in 1979)


Mark W. Danielson said...

I always love reading your bios, Jean. Keep them coming:)

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, Mark. I've got a lot of them. Wyoming is a goldmine for humorous stories.

Chester Campbell said...

You've done some fascinating interviews, Jean. Betty was quite a character.

Jean Henry Mead said...

You have no idea how much, Chester. Casper's nightlife beckoned to Betty when she was 65. She used to drive 60 miles into town after she closed the Bright Spot and dance till closing at a local nightclub, then drive back to Hiland and open the store that morning. That is until she suffered a heart attack. She then sold the Bright Spot and moved to Casper.

Bill Kirton said...

Fascinating, Jean. Great story, great character. I suppose there are still some unique individuals like Betty around, but they seem thinner on the ground nowadays. Which is a pity because eccentricity can be so creative. It certainly was in her case.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Bill. Betty was not only creative, she was a lovable character as well. Hmmmm, she would fit nicely into my Logan & Cafferty series. :)