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.
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.
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.
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.
My heart is saddened, Sonny was like an older brother to me. we had a lot of good times together. Brian ListerReplyDelete
SO SORRY TO HEAR HE PASSED , HE WAS TRULY A GOOD PERSONReplyDelete
So sorry to hear that. So glad to been able to see him at the reunion. Will miss him!!ReplyDelete
So sorry to hear about Sonny’s passing. He was blessed to have your friendship. He will be greatly missed. Praying for the void he leaves behind.ReplyDelete
So sad. My heart grieves along with all who have cared about Sonny over his lifetime. Heaven has a new Angel!ReplyDelete
Our hearts are saddened beyond words on the news that Sonny had died. I went from first grade thru high school with Sonny. Allen and I both knew Sonny but at different times in our lives. Then the day came when I first met Allen and he wanted to take me to a party at a friends house.He said don’t worry if you don’t know the guys at the party they are all great guys. Imagine my surprise when I walked in to the party and it was at Sonny's house..From that day forward Sonny was “our” friend and always encouraged us as a couple to make the best of our lives together…We have tears in our eyes this morning and so regret not being able to make it to the reunion and missed seeing Sonny’s smile on last time.ReplyDelete
Saddened by the news, but happy that he did know that he touched many lives. I never saw him angry. I don't think he had an angry bone in his body. I really wanted his big block Corvette when I heard he was thinking of selling it. Sorely disappointed when he didn't. I went to Sport Chevrolet and bought an SS 396 El Camino(red of course), until I finally got my own Corvette. Rest in Peace.ReplyDelete
So sorry to hear of Sonny's passing. I met him through my older brothers, who were classmates of Sonny's at High Point. I loved that Corvair he had, and I recall him taking me for a ride before I was old enough to drive. I hoped he would keep it so I could buy it...never happened.ReplyDelete
I lived in Southern MD, but got caught in a bad snowstorm in 1983. A couple of were stranded overnight, and went to the store as the snow piled up. There was Sonny, working as always. Hadn't seen him in many years, but he recognized me instantly. We chatted for a few minute while my co-workers shopped for dinner items. Sonny asked if what we were cooking, and we said "what whatcha got". He proceeded to give us the absolute best pork chops I've ever had. Ever.
Thank you Sonny! You're a gem of a man, and I mourn your passing. RIP
As has been noted, it's not possible to remember Sonny without a smile on his face. Though he had some bumps in the road, he managed to stay positive and always eager to reach out to a friend. I'm not a religious person but I do believe heaven and hell exist in the memories and hearts of the people you leave behind. So I know that Sonny has a firm footing in heaven and that we are all better off for having known him.ReplyDelete
Gail, you meant the WORLD to Sonny, as he spoke of you with the highest praise so many times I can't count them all. Thank you for visiting with him and bringing joy to his heart.Delete
I've lived just 1/2 a block from the old Boteler's store for the past 46 years! There wasn't a day that I didn't shop at Boteler's Store! When I moved to Beltsville in 1973 Sonny's father and Uncle Buddy were a pair to believe! The nicest family I ever met! Since the Store closed I haven't kept in touch with Sonny, other then seeing him on Facebook! He definitely was a one of a kind guy and will be greatly missed! One more thing! When my mother was living with me she would make a special effort to have Sonny cut her meat to suit her taste! she wouldn't go anywhere else but Boteler's! RIP Sonny WAML Freddie JohnsonReplyDelete
No doubt I wish I had not received this news! Another one of our Beltsville Shell Brothers has passed and left us behind, sad.
Thanks to you and Ralph for putting those fantastic memories together and sharing with all of us!
Sad day indeed. Still recall joking with Sonny in the band. Enjoyed his smile in the last reunion photo! Blessings.ReplyDelete
Thanks for letting me know about Sonny. He was a great friend and always had time to talk about the latest Beltsville news . Sonny shared his friendship with everyone. I was thankful for seeing him and everyone at the reunion. He shall be missed.ReplyDelete
Love to all, Phil Marcus
To be happy I’ve read depends in part on surrounding yourself with people who influence you in positive ways. In that regard I believe you have been a role model. You and Sonny and the other Beltsville bandits formed a lifelong bond that I don’t think would have been possible with later generations. AnonymousReplyDelete
Thank You for documenting the friendship that you and your daughter shared with Sonny.
Your eulogy is well written and includes so many of his accomplishments, relationships and experiences.
I will miss Sonny. I traveled to the WDC area earlier this year with the hopes of seeing him as he had shared his medical condition with me. Unfortunately, the day before I arrived, he was put into a care center which would not allow me to visit with him due to Covid restrictions. I had this sinking feeling, I might never see him again.
In my last phone call with him, he shared with me how important his friendship and bond was with Canon. I cannot thank her enough for caring and the light she brought into his life. She made him feel special!
Sonny will always be remembered as he helped shape the person that I am today through his kindness, loyalty, and work ethic. A deep hearted sadness with his passing – he is in a better place.
Wayne, thank you for sharing your thoughts. You were a big part of Sonny's life and he spoke of you often, always with joy.Delete
I considered Sonny my best friend for several years. We went to elementary school together. We were both patrols, Sonny a Corporal and I was Sargent. We went to patrol camp together. In junior high we were in band together. In high school I spent a lot of time at his house, it was a great place to escape. Sonny's girlfriend, Bonny, and my girlfriend, Judy, were best friends and we all spent a lot of time together. Sonny and Bonnie broke up and Judy and I got married. Sonny had a bachelor party for me at his house. Sonny was in my wedding and helped Judy and I move into our first apartment. Later, whenever I wanted to catch up on the local news I would stop by Botelers and talk to Sonny. We would reminisce about the good times and he would bring me up to date on Larry, Gail, Charles, Ralph, Phil and many more. After Judy passed I took my new wife to meet Sonny at his store. It was as if no time had passed. Sonny and I reconnected before our 50th reunion, going to lunch at Seibels. The last time I saw him was at the reunion. I wish I had kept in contact. At my age you lose a lot of friends and family, but Sonny leaves a void that I will always feel. He was a good person and a better friend. Rest In peace old pal. I love you.ReplyDelete
After posting Sonny's eulogy to this site, within minutes, the first comments I received were from Malcolm Van Kirk, "Sad as I can possibly be. Sonny was one of the Beltsville folks that truly made living there special. "Mr. Beltsville' will be missed! And always remember, Sonny was 'What He drove'"ReplyDelete
It is sad to see a person I knew as both man and boy. He was kind, cheerful, and decent. I will have good memories of him always. Stan MooreReplyDelete