Barbara Stairs

Mary Barbara Jean Stairs



Vern Barbara StairsBarbara Stairs has been a volunteer of Big Cat Rescue since 1997 when she took over the record keeping for the sanctuary.  She handled all of the banking and credit card reconciliation and managed all of the rental properties that provide income for the cats from 1997-2017 when she retired.

Barbara met Vernon at WEDU in Tampa in 1959, where she was a secretary and he was a camera man.  She asked him out first to a Sadie Hawkin’s Day picnic at her church.  They married in 1960.  Carole was born to them in 1961 and Chuck was born to them in 1967.  Grandchildren, working at Big Cat Rescue include Jamie Veronica Boorstein, born in 1980 to Carole and Katie Nikic, born in 1989 to Chuck.

Meet the Big Cat Rescue Team. See a typical day at the sanctuary.

Carole’s Thoughts on Her Mother Mary Barbara Jean

My parents have always been work-a-holics, so my maternal grandmother helped raised me and thus the name Momma Jacquie. You have seen her name on Food Prep because when Jamie was old enough for college, she offered to pay her way, but at that time our Food Prep was a truck body with sinks down both sides and cutting up 500 lbs of meat a day was a dangerous proposition with knives flying and people crammed in like sardines. Jamie asked instead that the college fund be spent on building us a food prep building.

Mary Barbara Jean StairsIn 1997 when I lost my husband I discovered that one of our secretaries had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars and made herself the beneficiary and executor of his will. We had a dozen or so office staff and handy men to manage our real estate business and I didn’t know who I could trust any more, since that woman had been my best girl friend for 17 years, so I replaced a dozen people with just my parents. My mother ran the real estate office and my dad did all of the maintenance to the properties, in addition to all of the cage building here and all of the mowing and maintenance here at the sanctuary. Even though more than half of their work has always been to benefit the sanctuary, I paid them from my real estate business. When the sanctuary began to do a little better financially, my father became an employee here.

Vern has worked at the sanctuary 6 days a week for all these years until having triple bypass surgery and repair to five aneurisms in August 2010. My mother has worked 6 days a week for all these years doing the sanctuary’s banking, and managing all of the mortgages and properties that I donated to the sanctuary as well as investments we have made in recent years as funds have allowed. She rents out the properties, negotiates the sales, chases down late payments, and cleans up and fixes up the properties when the tenants leave. She is the one who makes sure that petty cash expenditures have receipts to back them up, she checks our credit card statements to make sure we are not being billed for things we didn’t order and works with Howie to do all of the back end work that goes into our tax accounting. She does all that while still taking care of all of my real estate business and while being the primary caregiver to her 86 year old mother, MommaJacquie.

Any of you who date back to 1998 will remember the day the “old blue van” caught fire and burned on the way to an offsite event. Back then the sanctuary was costing me hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund and I could not afford another van. My parents bought and donated the van we currently drive. They have continued to donate money as well their time over the years and you may have seen their sign out by Joseph.

BarJean’s Memories of Her Mother

June 9, 2014 at 9:40am
When Mommajacquie (my mother’s mother) died, my mother and her sister asked if each of us grandchildren would speak at her memorial service. There were some memories that came before us, or were seen from the different perspective of my mother though and are too precious to be forgotten. Here is what my mother, Mary Barbara Jean Norris Stairs wrote:

“In 1940 Jacqueline Thompson married Floyd Norris and they moved to California to help Floyd’s father who was building orange crates for pennies each. In January of 1941, she had their first daughter, Mary Barbara Jean, named after all her sisters and sister-in-law, and 11 months later her second daughter Carole, named after her favorite movie star – Carole Lombard. Seven years later in 1949 the third daughter, Diana, was premature and died after five days. Mother always kept our hair in ringlets when we were young and had our grandmother sew beautiful clothes for us. My mother is remembered for her hair always in place, beautiful jewelry, although just costume, and fine clothes, a lot of which were purchased at garage sales and flea markets.

Mother was always a hard worker. During World War II, she worked at Delco Remy, lifting armatures which weighed about 15-20 pounds, from conveyor to conveyor. She became quite strong and would be the entertainment at parties by arm wrestling the men. That strength was still apparent up to her last days. She would hold onto nurses’ gloves and not let go. They would have to slip their hands out of the gloves and leave them with her.

She was also very athletic and was on the high school’s basketball team. When we were growing up, Mother and Daddy would play basketball, volleyball, softball, table tennis, jacks and other sports with us. They both had many trophies for their bowling skills.

Another good quality was she was careful with money and always would put back a little into a savings account. Our first trip from Indiana to Florida was hosted by James Cope, President of Florida Christian College (the name was later changed to Florida College) where we stayed in a dorm room in order to keep down costs. We all loved Florida and moved here shortly after that trip. The trip and the move were done with Mother’s savings. She was generous with her finances in sending us to college and later helping other college students in the Florida College Adopt-A-Student program.

Mother used to tell us about the time she and her mother, Goldie, were in a boat crossing a deep creek. They had baby chicks with them that they were taking to sell to get money for groceries. They lived in the Arkansas countryside and were very poor. The boat tipped over and everyone fell out. Mother did not know how to swim but Goldie was concerned about the baby chicks and was gathering them up so they didn’t drown, totally ignoring Mother, who learned to “dog paddle” that day, but she was always afraid of water from then on. Her fear of water did not stop her many years later when her three small grandsons, Alan, Stacy and Mike Crim, stepped into a hole in Lake Keystone where Mother and Daddy lived. She would sink to the bottom of the hole and push up with all her might and push the three young boys closer and closer to the shore, taking a breath of air, and then going back down into the dreaded water until all three were safe. My sister said that was the scariest time of her life while she watched from the shore.

Mother assisted her sister, Barbara Huff, and her daughters in buying homes and cars; wanting us to have good running, safe vehicles. A Cadillac once saved her life so she knew how important the right car can be. In the 1980’s she was stopped at the stop light at Waters and North Dale Mabry when a tractor trailer rig driver, who claimed his brakes failed, plowed into the rear of her large Cadillac. The Highway Patrol said if not for the impact resistance of the metal on that vehicle, she would not have survived. She still spent many days in the hospital with head injuries, which most likely contributed to her dementia in the final years.

They were in Amway reaching the Ruby level; had their own furniture business and invested in land in Florida (The Circle 8 in Pasco County) and North Carolina (Econa Mountain Estates and Blue Mist in Bryson City). Both of them were very good in sales.

We were taught to be self-reliant and industrious. When we were young we had to stand on stools to reach the sink, but we had to wash and dry all the dishes, iron the clothes including sheets and towels but we never got burned as she cautioned us on how to hold the iron safely. Her favorite saying was, “work is fun”. The one work she did not consider fun was picking cotton; she felt that was the hardest labor she ever had to do.

I am blessed to have traveled with her to Arkansas, Missouri, Alaska, cruising the Mediterranean and visiting South Africa, which was our last trip, not counting the many trips to her beloved North Carolina log cabin. She was a good travel companion who loved God’s creations.” –BarJean

More about Mom helping me in the early days of the sanctuary:

When I lost my husband, Don Lewis, in 1997, I discovered that our secretary, who I thought was my best girl friend, had embezzled over $600,000.00. At the time we had six secretaries in the office who managed our real estate investment business. When I believed they colluded to cover the fraud, I fired all six of them and begged my mother, who was trying to put in 20 years at Gulf Control for her full pension, to come handle my finances. I’m good at finding deals but had never balanced a check book and trusting my staff had not been wise.

I figured that my mother would be able to sort out the mess and that later I would hire her some help. She did sort out the mess and we were able to identify and reclaim the properties, tax certificates and many other items that had been stolen. She found hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of real estate that was in danger of being sold for unpaid taxes, and caught up the payments to the counties, so we didn’t lose them.

My mother dealt with the mountains of paperwork and book keeping that accompanied a six year receivership that comes along with a missing person situation. She helped me sort out half of the estate to give to Don’s children, even though he had cut them out of his will and wasn’t speaking to them. I divided the estate by giving them the properties that I had not been responsible for acquiring (and even several that I did) so that they could manage them to their own liking during the receivership. The children liquidated everything they could, but I didn’t oppose them doing so. For years I had managed their mother’s properties, that she got in the divorce from Don, so that she continued to have an income and a nest egg, but the children wanted “their” money right away. I doubt they managed their mother’s affairs as carefully as I had.

They also insisted that “their” money not be wasted on feeding big cats, and the court imposed a $150,000 a year budget for running the sanctuary. That came at a time when our annual budget was closer to half a million and now I wasn’t allowed to use the money I was earning in our real estate business to feed the cats. We had been a non profit since 1995, but in 1997 our real estate business was still paying most of the sanctuary’s short fall so I had to learn how to raise money from the public. I was also trying desperately to spay and neuter the cats to stop the breeding and trying to divide cages so that males and females weren’t together. All of this while trying to find my husband who had wandered off one day and never returned.

One thing I didn’t have to worry about was the real estate business. I still had to go out and find the deals and negotiate sales but once I paid for the property my mother took care of everything else. She had my Dad go out and fix them, she would clean them up, she would run ads to rent them, under a rent to own option, she would show the properties, screen the buyers, handle the rental contracts, collect the rents, nag them for unpaid rents, evict those who didn’t pay, convert those who did to deeds with mortgages back to us and then continue to collect mortgage payments, and foreclose on those who didn’t pay.

During the receivership the cash always ended up in the hands of lawyers and the court appointed receiver, so I would often donate the properties, up to my approved level of $150,000 a year, to the sanctuary. As a result my mother ended up having to run four separate businesses; the sanctuary finances, my real estate business, the growing sanctuary real estate business, and the court mandated “Don Lewis” entity, which would preserve his assets until his return or death certificate. She had to manage all of these accounts with the utmost transparency so that the world could see there was no improprieties, which is how a business should be run, but was an added level of stress in the hostile environment of a receivership.

She handled all of the taxes, both to the counties and on the business, and keeps the most amazing and accurate records you can imagine for both the real estate business and for the sanctuary. She handles the payroll for both. She makes sure we all turn in our receipts so she can match them against the credit card statements. She does all of the banking. She handles payment of all of the electric bills, water bills, maintenance, gift shop, cat food and other vendors and phone and Internet services. I’m sure she does a lot more, that I don’t even know needs doing, but she does it so well that I never have to think about it.

But for the last many years she has been doing all of that, all by herself, while taking care of MommaJacquie, who hasn’t been able to care for herself since losing her husband, my grandfather, BigDaddy in 1997. MommaJacquie was been bed ridden for the last several years, but my mother still managed to do all of this by herself, with occasional reprieves by her sister taking care of MommaJacquie. My mother never had any support staff until I hired Katie Nikic last year as her assistant. She had replaced six office workers and performed better than a dozen. She never asked for help until last year, and even then, she was still doing it all, but felt she needed to train the next generation to take her place when the time comes.

I am so fortunate to have such a wonderful mother and business partner.

You know you have a wonderful mother when your husband loves her too. This photo was taken at the Tampa Bay Business Journal’s Non Profit of the Year luncheon, where Big Cat Rescue was a finalist, on June 5, 2014.

Howie Mom

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