August 11, 2021
If there was ever a person whose countenance was perpetually sunny, it was Sonny.
Clifford Elmore Boteler, Jr., known to all of us as "Sonny", was the most cheerful person we ever knew. Always smiling with an affection that came from within, he greeted everyone with friendliness and genuine care.
Today, with his passing, the lights have grown dim in the shop at the back of the extant Beltsville Shell, the sunshine obscured by clouds of grief hanging over Beltsville. All of us have lost a true, life-long, friend. A mournful vigil has ended.
Born on December 29, 1946, Sonny was for seven decades the heart and soul of Beltsville -- known by everyone and loved by all. The third generation owner of the iconic general store -- Boteler & Son -- Sonny had a positive impact on everyone he met.
Sonny engaged in the usual childhood activities of a Beltsville kid.
He was a member of Boy Scout Troop 408. In the early 1960's fewer than 2% of all Boy Scouts attained the distinction of Eagle Scout -- the highest achievement a boy can earn in Scouting. Sonny was one of the first Eagles in Troop 408, earning his 21 merit badges for things like camping, hiking, and all the things that made Scouting fun. In the photo below you can see his progression from Star to Life and finally to Eagle. He told me that he was proudest of his swimming merit badge.
At High Point High School, Sonny was one of the most popular members of the class of 1965. He took the academic education track and was a member of the High Point Band.
Here is his high school graduation photo.
And here is Sonny all dressed up for the senior prom with his High Point sweetheart, the lovely Gail Shirey. (Photo courtesy of Gail)
Sonny supported the family business from his teenage years . . . .
. . . . until the store finally closed its doors in 2006.
After Beltsville Shell was published, Sonny kept an inventory of the books handy at the store for customers to pick up and enjoy. He loved telling the story of the writing of the book, and relating how all the old Shell regulars maintained a friendship throughout the years, later meeting for annual reunions. He especially loved autographing the book for customers.
A few months ago Sonny and I collaborated on a project to document the history of Boteler & Son General Store and I'm not sure who got more enjoyment out of this exercise, Sonny or me! Here is a link to the story:
The Story of Boteler & Son -- General Store
Finally freed of the non-stop, daily grind of running the store, Sonny was able to turn to some adventures. One of my favorite times with him was a trip, courtesy of Bill Goodwin, to the NASCAR Track in Dover, Delaware. Here is Sonny in his driver's suit tackling the "Monster Mile" track in a real NASCAR racer.
From day one Sonny was a "Chevy man," following in the tradition of the Boteler family. His first car was a turbocharged Chevy Corvair that he drove to high school. Before long he upgraded to Corvette, and he owned two classic mid-sixties Corvette Stingrays.
Here is Sonny in his family home with a fifth-generation Corvette.
From the first day that I began formulating the details for the book, Beltsville Shell, You Are What You Drive, I knew that Sonny would be one of the main characters of the book. Sonny embraced the concept of the book immediately and was a great source of history and memories throughout its pages. Chapter 26 is Sonny's chapter.
When the book was mostly complete, but yet to be published, in March of 2002, Sonny was one of the six guys who met with me at dinner to relive our times together at the Shell station. In the photo below are Frank Porto, myself, Sonny, John Bradley, Nace DeLauter, Frank Bollinger, and Jim Noll.
That first meeting started an annual tradition of "Beltsville Shell Reunions." Number 18 was 10 weeks ago, with Sonny in attendance as he had been for every reunion.
A few days before the 18th Reunion Sonny's doctor wanted to put him in the hospital. Sonny told the doctor that there was no way that he was going to miss the reunion. Such was his love and devotion to his childhood friends.
Although weakened by his medical condition, Sonny's smile and spirit never waned. Here he is laughing it up with Beltsville friends Sam Whitmore, Phil Marcus, and Malcolm Van Kirk.
Here is Sonny showing off his Beltsville Shell shirt with me, our daughter, Canon, and Nace. Sonny, Nace, and I have attended every reunion -- 18 in a row.
Sonny wanted to keep his medical condition private, and we have honored his wishes. His ever up-beat demeanor hid from view how really serious his illnesses were. Whether you saw him in person or talked to him by phone, Sonny's joy for life and cheerful spirit would mask how he really felt. In recent weeks his condition deteriorated.
In the past year four things brought joy to Sonny in his final days:
- The Beltsville Shell Reunions meant the world to him, and he looked forward to Reunion #18 with anticipation -- and his presence was inspirational to all of us in attendance;
- Sonny thoroughly enjoyed the story that we crafted about Boteler's Store. After the article was published, and posted on Facebook, hundreds of people reacted and responded to the story. Canon and I spent many hours reading the comments over the phone to Sonny -- and for each one, Sonny would recall some special memory about the person or the family who wrote the comment. Every time we would call Sonny to see how he was doing, he would mention his satisfaction with the article about the Store;
- For all of you who called, or wrote, or visited Sonny -- you must know how much he valued the outpouring of love from each of you -- thank you for remembering him in so many meaningful ways;
- And, the most personal of all of these joys, was the way in which Sonny and Canon established a special bond of friendship – I watched in admiration at the way the two of them shared a connection; she has sent him a letter every month for the past year, and he would mail her old photographs and memorabilia with notes and hand-written captions. Sonny frequently told me, "Canon is the daughter that I never had.” What a fitting capstone to a life of being a dear friend to so many people -- reaching across years and miles to forge a friendship that will not fade with Sonny's passing.
There was one person in Sonny's life for whom Sonny could have held a legitimate animosity -- they had reached a serious disagreement, and parted ways, not to speak again for many years. In his final days, Sonny asked me to locate that person and to arrange for a reunion. The two of them had a beautiful phone call characterized by forgiveness and care. Such was the unbelievable character of this man.
I must emphasize here the dedication and love that Sonny's family has for this amazing person. Sonny's brother Frank, and the extended Boteler family have cared for him in his hours of greatest need. Special mention must go to Julie Barr-Strasburg, who has selflessly been Sonny's caregiver for the past five years, as well as his Aunt Jeanie. Julie has kept us constantly updated on Sonny's condition, has sent and received packages, and provided physical and moral support.
Sonny would want me also to mention (as he noted to me many times) the special gift that his nurses have bestowed on him -- caring for him no matter what the need. And Brian Lister faithfully escorted Sonny to the Beltsville Shell Reunions, sometimes in a Corvette!
Sonny is survived by his brother, Dr. Franklin E. Boteler, his sister-in-law, Jennifer Barr Boteler, nephew Robinson D. Boteler, niece-in-law Patricia Boteler, grandniece Sienna M. Boteler, aunt Jeanie Rolf Mihalko, uncle Pete Mihalko, and cousins Edith Fafard, David Rolf, Wendy Cassidy, Jeff Cassidy, and Craig Cassidy.
It was Sonny's wish that there be no memorial service for him, and that his ashes would be spread over the following places: Little Beaver Creek, near where he has been living (in the Hagerstown area) for the past few years; Garrett County where he held fond childhood memories; and the Ft. Lincoln cemetery (the location of many Boteler relatives are buried).
If you want to leave a remembrance of Sonny, this blog site affords that option. Or you can send me an email and I will post it for you. Please be sure to read the beautiful remembrance from Ralph Bull, one of Sonny's closest friends, below.
I have struggled to know how to end this eulogy. Losing Sonny will be difficult for all of us. Our family's feeling of anguish is simply enormous because we loved Sonny so much.
I suppose we will have to be satisfied knowing that Sonny's life was a
model for each of us -- to love freely and care about each other; surely this is the legacy of his life, a gift that he gave to all of us.
Rest in peace dear friend.
A Remembrance from Ralph Bull:
I was trying to piece together my past, and Sonny was a huge part of that past. While a small child that would occasionally stay with his grandmother on Montgomery Road, I knew the name ‘Boteler’ even then. My grandmother, Mrs. Dove, would call down to Boteler’s store once a week or so to have her groceries delivered. Mr. Boteler (grandpa), or sometimes Buddy or Cliff, would bring them up in a cardboard box in what I remembered to be an old green pickup (I think), place them on the dining room table, talk for a bit before being paid (and tipped), and then depart. I’m sure that this same familiar scenario played out across the town for others as well, for like Behenke’s, Boteler’s store was family to the town, and vice versa.
When I graduated from high school and got my first car, I gravitated like many in town to the local Shell station on Route 1. That Shell station was itself somewhat of an institution, as it was home to many of us in various stages in our lives in a small town, and allowed us great freedom and camaraderie. Compared to most of those who were to become my friends over the years, I was young. Many of the guys were much older than I, yet they accepted me with open arms and open hearts. Everyone had a name or a nickname, and I remember early on in my education there, that Cary asked me if I had ever met Sonny Boteler. I, of course, knew the name as well as the store, but I informed Cary that I had not met Sonny. Cary let me know that Sonny worked at the store with his father and uncle and was sure he’d arrive at the Shell Station at some time or other. He said that I would like his car, a red big block Corvette. Though at that time I had not met Sonny, I indeed knew of the car.
Sonny eventually came into the Shell station. From that point on we were lifelong friends. He was kind and gracious, not in any way pretentious, and loved cars! To be able to have Sonny Boteler as a friend was indeed quite special, for in my mind it told me that I was now ‘accepted’ and was part of a very special club.
As the years passed, Sonny and I grew much closer, and he allowed me to become part of his world. I can no longer count the evenings spent hanging out and dining with his Aunt Lillian and Uncle Buddy at their dining room table. Sonny would spend his days working at the store, and every evening like clockwork would arrive for a traditional dinner next door at his aunt and uncle’s. Once dinner was finished, he and I, and perhaps a host of others, would gravitate upstairs to his living quarters in his house (next door) to listen to music, drink beer, and talk. Endless talking. Such good times.
There are so many stories. He and I had many a late night meal of hot dogs with sauerkraut & schooners of beer at Lum’s on Route 1 in College Park. Often we’d drive to the Drug Fair in Langley Park so he could buy a box of Licorice Allsorts….about the only place that had them. They were his favorite! There was the Schlitz beer pyramid that Larry Fiscus and I were building in Sonny’s upstairs living room! Larry and I had made a bet, and Sonny offered up his space to us for the purpose of “construction!” For what it’s worth, I eventually lost the bet! And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the long nights working on our cars in Sonny’s garage. There would be food and beer and a constantly revolving door that opened for anyone who wanted to drop by.
One Sunday during a cold January, Sonny called me to ask if I wanted to go to Ocean City! He let me know that he and Linda Baer were going to drive over for the day, and wanted to know if I wanted to ride along. You Bet, anything to get a ride in the Corvette with the likes of Linda Baer riding on the thin console between the bucket seats! LOL. I had never been to Ocean City before then, so I couldn’t wait to jump at the chance to go! It was a long cold drive over to the Atlantic Ocean. By the time we had reached Ocean City, the roar of the big block and side pipes had left the three of us nearly deaf. I was surprised to see that there really wasn’t a lot to Ocean City. Once past the boardwalk there was really nothing as we headed up toward Delaware, with the exception of Bobby Baker’s Carousel! It was the only structure on the beach! Unbelievable. I love the quiet and desolation that this cold winter Sunday was presenting to us, and couldn’t wait to go back. It would be 10 or 15 years before I was to return; imagine my surprise when my once quiet and pristine Ocean City had become as crowded as Miami Beach, Florida!
Sonny’s life eventually became the store, and there was a part of me that always wished he’d be given the opportunity to experience more in what life had to offer. It was rare that he was able to get time off, BUT WHEN HE DID!
In late July or early August of 1969, word was going around of a large rock concert in upstate New York. Somehow a group of us managed to pull off what would for many be, the experience of a lifetime. Sonny really wanted to go to this and we kept egging him on to do so. I remember it being a last-minute reality, but he actually did find someone to take his place for that eventful weekend. Speaking for myself I can say that it was definitely an unbelievable experience, and if Sonny we’re here now I’m sure that he would say the same thing. I was so glad and so happy that he got to go, as it would be a memory that he could share with others, and a personal experience that he and I could share between us for the rest of our lives.
Sonny loved fast cars and drag racing, And he would on occasion find the time to go to one of the local tracks. For years I have been telling him about my adventures to Indianapolis to see the NHRA Nationals. It was probably 1971 or so, and a few of us we’re getting ready to make another trip out. We invited Sonny, and sure enough he was able to go! Yahoo. We stayed at the De Soto motel on the west side of town, as did many of the racers. Many of the big named racers stayed at the same motel with us, it was really something to see them working on their cars throughout the night as they readied for the next day’s worth of competition. As with Woodstock, I was so glad, even at ‘that’ time, that he was able to attend with us.
As the years and decades passed, I lost touch with my friend, but on occasion I was able to find the time to go and see him. At one point he was still living in Beltsville at his home. The store had closed, his aunt, uncle, and father had long passed on. We talked for quite a while about the memories and the past, but I think we both realized then that our lives, all lives, are constantly changing. Some years passed after that and I kept hearing it through the grapevine that he was having some health issues. I had learned that he had eventually moved out of Beltsville, and was residing in a small house in the Hagerstown, Maryland area. Having his number I decided to call him one day and made arrangements to go up and see him…this was about three years ago or so. I spent about two hours there with him watching television I’m talking about the past. It made me feel good to see my old friend once again, and I know that he enjoyed the fact that I had driven up there to see him. His health had indeed become precarious, but he still had a smile on his face, and his words were still the same kind words that I had come to know all these years.
I spoke with Sonny about a week ago, perhaps a little bit longer. He was still at home, but sadly his ill health had taken over to dominate his life. His voice was deep and slow, not the Sonny I knew. We talked maybe 20 or 30 minutes. I told him that I was now living in upstate New York and then I had planned in a few weeks to drive down to Woodstock take some photos and to relive some memories. He was overjoyed to hear that and I promised him that I would send him the photos during the time that I was there and call him on the phone to let him know in ‘real time’ what I was seeing. I had learned that he had finally obtained a new cell phone that allowed him some internet and messaging access. Once I found this out I asked him if he could receive any photos and he told me that he could. I sadly had to end the call, but promised him that I would send him some old photos from our past as soon as I hung up. He said that he would love that and would look forward to them. I hung up the phone, found about 30 photos, and sent them off. I know in my heart that he enjoyed them greatly. I know in my heart that I sure enjoyed knowing him.