Corner on the market

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer November 24, 2010 04:23 pm

Kara Jo Willits, pictured above, and her husband Alvin bought Evans Corner in 1980. Alvin passed away in 2004. Today Kara Jo and daughter Lisa continue with the business.  S. JOHN COLLINS
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She was whisked away to the school, then escorted inside. Then she walked through a gauntlet of cheering students, all there to commemorate the 30 years she’s spent as a North Powder businesswoman and community activist.

“People don’t do things like that in a big city,” Kara Jo said last week as she recalled the event.

The school assembly was just the beginning. Later, in a ceremony at the store, Mayor Bonita Hebert and many friends  showed up to help her celebrate the 30th anniversary.

Hebert presented her with the city’s gold key, an honor reserved for a select few.

“Kara Jo’s just been a totally community-minded person,” the mayor said after the ceremony. “She loves this town and she’s involved in everything she knows about.”

Until 1980, Willits and her family lived in Eugene, happy enough but wondering what life might be like in a smaller community.

As it happened, they were no strangers to Union County. Kara Jo had a brother here, and her husband Alvin made regular treks to hunt deer and elk. On one trip, Alvin heard that the little store on North Powder’s main drag was up for sale.

Evans Corner had some history behind it. Arnette Evans had opened it about 1974, and later sold it to Steve and Judy Higgins.

With the Higginses looking to move on to other things, Alvin and Kara Jo talked it over and decided to become small town grocers. It was a major decision and not one the couple made lightly.

“We had two children in school, so I wasn’t too sure about it at first,” Kara Jo said.

The family packed up, headed east and started settling into North Powder’s rhythms. Kara Jo said that people in town have always been neighborly, though she found them a little on the reserved side at first.

“They were very friendly but I think they were a little leery in the beginning about big-town people coming to their community,” she said.

It all all worked out fine in the end. Business hummed along and Kara Jo found herself becoming more and more active in community affairs.

North Powder residents stop by Evans Corner grocery store to help Kara Jo Willets celebrate her three decades of business. Those who stopped by for groceries and the free hotdogs and cupcakes Monday included, from left, Alan Bedolla, Christian Bedolla, Miriam Alipio and baby Steven Bedolla.
North Powder residents stop by Evans Corner grocery store to help Kara Jo Willets celebrate her three decades of business. Those who stopped by for groceries and the free hotdogs and cupcakes Monday included, from left, Alan Bedolla, Christian Bedolla, Miriam Alipio and baby Steven Bedolla.
Over the years, she has been especially active in school functions. She also helps out with North Powder’s Santa Mall, a holiday event for kids held annually at the Wolf Creek Grange.

Even today she stands ready to lend a hand whenever the community needs it.

“Anytime anything’s needed in town, they call and I’m there,” Kara Jo said. “I think I’ve enjoyed everything there is about this place. I’ve enjoyed working with the school and with the town on projects,” she said.

In their first two years as business people, Alvin and Kara Jo did a major store remodel. They opened up more space by removing a wall that ran down the middle of the store, and they also built storage in the back.

It took a little experimentation, but over time they learned what a convenience store 20 miles equidistant from La Grande and Baker City from should have on hand.

A customer finds a little bit of everything on the shelves, from leather work gloves to laundry soap and bleach, and plenty in between.

All that is in addition to  staple items that include cold beverages, baked goods, deli sandwiches, dairy products, canned goods, snack items, beer and wine, and more. Included in the business operation is a licensed Oregon state liquor store.

For their first few years in business, Kara Jo and Alvin ran the store by themselves. Eventually, Alvin decided to take on some outside work as a truck driver.

Kara Jo minded the store, putting in long hours. Between the business and her community involvements, she had a full plate. There came a time when she decided she needed some help.

“So then I had a crew,” she said.

And ever since, Evans Corner has provided employment opportunities. These days, Kara Jo’s daughter, Lisa Fouts, and North Powder residents  Shawna Grende, Tina Kandle, Jen Grace and Sara Dixon log hours behind the counter. Bryson and Gavin Kandle, twin brothers recently graduated from North Powder High School, come in as needed to stock coolers.

“I have a terrific crew that works here now,” Kara Jo said.

Kara Jo said she’s slowing down a bit, with Fouts shouldering many of the day-to-day responsibilities of running the store.

After 30 long and happy years, Kara Jo isn’t exactly in retirement. She’s just taking things a little easier.

“I’m really not ready to retire. I just want to slow down a bit, but keep busy at the same time,” she said.