Politics & Government

At 91, the ‘personality of Sedgwick County’ retires, plans to help ‘them older folks’

If you sit at the reception desk at the Sedgwick County Courthouse long enough, you might end up saving somebody’s job — or maybe somebody’s life.

And Eula West sat at that desk for a very long time — since 1969.

Do the math and that’s 49 years, but who’s counting?

At age 91, Eula West finally called it a career.

“I’ve been here longer than most everybody’s been born,” she said, as she sat at her reception desk one last time before her Wednesday afternoon retirement reception.

West was the first face you’d see when you walked into the courthouse and the last you’d see when you left.

And she nearly always had a smile, whether she was bantering with the county government poobahs, helping a lost felon find the right courtroom. or selling bootleg peanut brittle under the counter at Christmastime.

A stroke last year took the sight from one of her eyes, but they still sparkle when she tells a story.

Like the time one of the sheriff’s lieutenants, Harold “Goodie” Goodman, came to her desk and told her to get out of her chair. He then sat down and told her to get her scissors.

“What am I going to do with scissors?” she said. “He said, ‘You’re going to give me a haircut.’

“ I said ‘Goodie, do you think I’m a beautician? I’m not no beautician.’ And he says, ‘Well, you are now. Get your scissors and hurry up because I got to get back to my office before Johnny comes in — that was Johnny Darr the sheriff he worked for.

“He said ‘Johnny said if I didn’t have this haircut off of my ears, today, he was gonna fire me.’ I said, ‘Oh brother. OK, sit down.’”

West then went to work with her office scissors and gave him a rough approximation of a bowl cut. It didn’t make the cover of GQ, but it did get the hair off Goodman’s ears and saved his job.

As she spoke Wednesday, she fingered a scar on the back of her finger, a souvenir of helping a man who had an angina attack in the hallway.

West said she saw the man leaning against the wall and sliding down. He patted his pants pocket, where she found a bottle of nitroglycerine tablets. She took a pill out of the bottle and placed it under his tongue.

But as she did that, he bit down hard on her finger, and she lost a strip of skin pulling it out.

“I never did know who he was,” she said. “He came back later in the week and told me ‘Thanks for saving my life.’ I guess it was worth losing all the meat on that finger getting it out of his mouth.”

And then there was the peanut brittle incident of 2016.

About 20 years earlier, West had brought some peanut brittle a friend made for Christmas to the courthouse. She shared it with co-workers and just about everybody agreed it was the best peanut brittle they’d ever had. So they asked where they could buy some.

A cottage industry was born.

So for the next 20 years, West sold the peanut brittle under the counter at the courthouse and her friend made a few bucks around Christmastime.

Until a feature story in the Wichita Eagle on the holiday tradition brought some unwanted attention from management. Turned out it was a violation of county rules for employees to sell snacks unless it was for charity.

But with zero complaints and lots of county employees siding with West, management buckled. They determined that her friend had donated enough money to the youth group at her church to cover the income from the peanut brittle sales, so they declared it a charitable activity and called off any disciplinary action.

It seemed like West would be at the front desk forever.

But she was sitting at home last Oct. 30 sipping a cup of soup when she noticed some spots in her vision. Figuring it was just eye strain, she went to bed.

But when she woke up she couldn’t see anything out of her right eye. So she went her eye doctor, who told her, ‘I hate to tell you, you’ve had a massive stroke and it’s put out that eye.’”

The stroke also affected her right foot. After months of “therapy, therapy, therapy,” she gets around all right with a cane.

She held out hope she’d be able to return to work, but finally had to admit she isn’t up to it anymore.

She said she still feels blessed. Since her incident, three of her church friends have also had strokes. One can’t see at all and another can’t speak.

“I don’t know what a stroke does to you., but it zaps you,” she said.

Even at 91, she’s planning an active retirement. She frequently visits “them older folks” at the Wichita Masonic Home.

“It lifts me, gives me a joy to know that I can affect them,” West said. “I’m not going to just sit down. No.”

At Wednesday’s commission meeting, officials were effusive in their praise of West, who’s served through the tenures of 28 county commissioners.

“Eula, you clearly have had an impact on so many lives,” said Commissioner David Unruh. “You are consistently optimistic, and energetic and encouraging, and those are the things that we need around here a lot.”

“Eula, you’re obviously an institution and a legend and nobody wants to see you go,” added Commissioner Michael O’Donnell. “We all love you and anybody’s who’s been through the courthouse in the last 50 years loves you too.”

And Commissioner Jim Howell: “I call you the personality of Sedgwick County.”

In leaving, West left the commission her cherished — and useful — collection of county employee directories, every year back to 1969.

And she said she’s still ready to serve the county, if now in an unofficial capacity.

“I will be coming around to see what they’re doing,” she said. “If anybody needs any help for a few minutes, I’ll help them.”

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas