Jacksonville man with disabilities celebrates 50 years as coffee guru

Willie Deas went from institution to running coffee business' factory

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Imagine doing something for half a century and loving every minute of it.

A Jacksonville man is celebrating 50 years at the same coffee company, but there’s a twist.

Willie Deas was born with an intellectual difference and even lived in an institution. However, he didn’t let that stop him from getting a job and exceeding everyone’s expectations.

As a child, Deas had trouble talking. He couldn’t count to 10. He couldn’t read or write. At the time, there were few resources. So his family sent him to a school, described as an institution, in Gainesville.

But in 1969, he got an opportunity. At 18 years old, his family’s neighbor introduced him to Fred Martin, of Martin Coffee Company in Jacksonville.

Martin agreed to hire Deas as a janitor, taking care of odds and ends at the shop. But Deas showed he had a knack for operating machinery and quickly became a master at the process of turning raw coffee beans into fresh coffee.

“They brought him in and introduced him to my grandfather, and he said that maybe there’s something he can do around the office,” said Ben Johnson, Martin’s grandson, who is now president of the company. “Who knew 50 years from now, he would learn how to cup coffee, grind coffee, roast the coffee and pack it all by himself.”

In 2019, Deas does just about everything at the company’s Talleyrand factory.

“I like the job,” Deas said. “Everybody treats me nice.”

On Tuesday, his co-workers had something brewing for his 50th anniversary and 68th birthday.

They surprised Deas with a party at the warehouse, inviting his family for the occasion. They also gave him a 50-inch TV, a plaque and other gifts.

“I just love him to death. To see the accomplishments that he has made in his years due to a slight handicap,” said Josephine Davis, one of his six sisters. “He did not let it stop him.”

Deas’ relatives said Martin Coffee Company gave him a reason to push himself and to get out of bed every day. Deas, who worked 50 years without ever calling in sick, now works part-time, two days a week.

It only took one chance to make so much more than just a cup of coffee. That one opportunity made a difference that would last a lifetime.

The talk of the party, besides his accomplishments, was if Deas would ever retire. His sisters said it was doubtful.

Deas doubled down.

“No. I love my job. I love my job too much to quit," he said. "I feel good.”

News4Jax learned about Deas’ story from an organization called Connectable Jax, which helps link employable individuals with intellectual differences to companies in the Jacksonville area. So far, more than 100 businesses participate in the program.

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