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By David Knopf, News Editor
In 1978, the Richmond News published a front-page story about Joe and Karen DeAngelo, a New York couple who moved here to “Become Ray Settlers.”
That was just the first chapter in a saga about a hard-working couple whose lives were touched by tragedy, joy, business success and the experience of twice being at the center of a community that rallied around them.
Joe, a skilled auto electrician and Jack of all trades – he designed and built his own home, molded stone for the fireplace and even made of his own furniture – recently marked his 35th year in business in Richmond.
There’s nothing fancy about Joe’s Auto Electric, a shop on Business 10 west of Richmond, but it’s a testament to qualities – resourcefulness, endurance, honesty and hard work – that characterize the pioneer spirit.
Few businesses survive as long as DeAngelo’s, but it’s just one element in the family’s Ray County story.
“It’s a pretty good story of a family that came west,” Karen said. “We were just kids who wanted to get out of the city and make a life for ourselves.”
Karen and Joe lived in Long Island, N.Y., where the competition among businesses was stiff and property values and taxes were high. The DeAngelos wanted a big family – they wound up with six children, including a set of twins – and live what Karen refers to as “the homestead life.”
“That was one of the reasons we came out west,” she said. “We wanted to have a big family and we couldn’t afford it back east.”
The couple, both natives of Brooklyn, traveled west in 1977 to find a suitable place to put down new roots.
“We were camping across the country,” Karen recalled. “Pennsylvania was too expensive. In West Virginia, they were still fighting the Civil War and didn’t want any part of us Yankees.”
They wound up in southern Missouri, where a friend told them about some acquaintances in Excelsior Springs who might show them around the area.
They liked what they saw and the following January flew out to look for property. They wound up buying a small farm on Route EE, the winding, hilly road that connects Highways 210 and 10.
Joe sold his New York business and he and Karen’s brother, George Miller, hitched a 1940s-era trailer to a Chevy Suburban and headed west in a modern-day wagon train.
An animal lover, Joe loaded up his tools and the family “pets,” a menagerie that the Richmond News in 1978 said included two dogs, nine chickens, seven rabbits, four ducks and two goats, both pregnant. The newspaper appropriately referred to the vehicle as an ark.
Karen and the couple’s two young daughters, Diana and Christina, would follow once Joe got settled.
On the way, the trailer broke down and had to be scrapped, forcing Joe to give up some of his tools and move the animals into the Suburban. A Siberian Huskie sat between the two front seats, which was a good thing because the men needed something to guard against a dive-bombing rooster who was none too happy with the accommodations.
There were other misfortunates, but none nearly as tragic as one that took place that September. An accident sent Karen and Christina to hospitals, Christina to Children’s Mercy with serious head injuries.
Seriously disabled, the girl was cared for at home until she was 18 and institutionalized.
At first, their reception in Ray County was frosty, Karen recalled, reminding her of the experience in West Virginia. Their only friends were their dairy-farmer neighbors, Hub and Thelma Rimmer, now both deceased.
“He teased the hell out of this boy from Brooklyn who wanted to be a farmer,” Karen said.
Karen, a nurse, worked and Joe stayed home, splitting time between the kids and his auto-electric business. Times were very hard, and the following year Karen’s mother and father relocated to help with Christina and Diana.
“I was going to garage sales to buy sheets and cut them up into cloth diapers,” said Karen, who couldn’t afford real ones. “We were in dire financial straits and that’s when the community rallied around us. It supported us. We raised six kids here.”
It all started, Karen said, when the newspaper ran a story about Christina’s injuries and the family’s tough times. The outsiders with funny Eastern accents became part of the community.
“When the article came out, they knew we weren’t trying to rip them off,” Karen said.
The community also responded when Karen and another member of the community, Valerie Miller, raised money to start the Light House School for severely disabled children in Wood Heights.
The community also grew to support Joe’s electric business and customers flocked to Westrock Dairy, the farm where the DeAngelos sold milk, eggs, butter and cheese.
“We had so many customers who came to the house to buy the milk,” Karen said.
Joe kept his business on Route EE for 10 years, then moved to town. He’s been a mainstay in the community ever since.
“When I moved the business to town it really did well,” said Joe, who works a couple of days a week near the couple’s vacation home on Truman Lake in Warsaw. “People didn’t want to come to the country because the roads were so bad. No one wanted to drive out there and wind up in a ditch.”
Joe’s stock and trade was marketing rebuilt starter and alternator cores.
“I’d buy cores, rebuild them and set them up on consignment in service stations,” he said.
Once the community began embracing Joe and his family, he said he applied common sense to make his business successful.
“You just have to do what you have to do to stay in business,” he said. “You’ve got to be honest, and when you go to sleep at night know you’ve done the best you could.”
The couple that pioneered their way to Ray County and endured its share of hardship, achieved a longtime goal, Joe said: Owning property on a body of water, something that was always out of reach in New York.
“It was a dream when we lived in New York,” he said. “We always wanted a place with a lake or a water view.”
Joe built the couple’s home in Warsaw from scratch – using the money he made by building and selling a cabin.
“It was always a dream of his to build his own house,” said Karen, an unabashed admirer of her husband’s talents. “He made all the fireplace stone with molds at his shop,” and built furniture the couple use inside.
“He’s a man of many talents,” Karen said, “even though he fixes alternators and starters for a living.”