Updated: May 27, 2022
By: Ashley Strehl - Managing Editor of Digital and Print Publications
When Viola Watkins Stephens opened Watkins Skyview Nursing Home, she did so with her passion of caring for others in mind. However, what she didn’t know was that she would make history and leave a legacy that would last for generations.
At its opening, on July 23, 1970, Watkins Skyview Nursing Home was the largest African American business owned by a woman in Oklahoma. However, even if the 68-bed skilled nursing and long-term care community was in fact the largest nursing home that Stephens managed and owned, it was not her first.
Originally from Texas, Stephens was the youngest of 13 siblings. Stephens graduated college from Langston University and was a teacher in Guthrie for 25+ years. During this time, she gave birth to her only son, Robert Lynch, in 1928, who joined the military in 1944. “He was her pride and joy,” Stephens's granddaughter, Brenda Burden, said. “The sun rose and set in his eyes.”
When Stephens decided to move to East Oklahoma City, she rented a house next to St. John’s Baptist Church and became an active member of the church while participating in the gospel chorus. After making connections and adapting to the family-oriented environment of St. John’s, she was asked if she could look after two elderly sisters from the community. “In the Black community, and in Black churches, that’s just what we do,” Stephens's granddaughter, Brenda Burden, said. “We take care of each other.”
With that sentiment in mind, that’s just what Stephens did. She moved the sisters in with her. When word of Stephens's act of kindness spread throughout St. John’s, other members began to come to her for help. “I believe that God led her to that mission, which is the reason for her place in history,” Burden said. “If she were still here, she would say the same thing, that God led her on that path and carried her through it.”
Before modern day TV and social media advertising, word of mouth was one of the only forms of advertising that business owners could depend on, and it was one of the primary ways in which Stephens received referrals. “As time went on, God just continued to bless her with more people who were in need,” Burden said. “That was her calling, she wanted to help people, and she did.”
With demand growing, Stephens chose to go back to school and study to obtain a master's degree from Oklahoma University. “She was a very educated woman,” Burden said. “She truly believed education was the key to success.” With a plethora of knowledge under her belt, Stephens opened her first official nursing home and day care with her daughter-in-law Betty Lynch, and her granddaughters, Burden, and Phyllis Lynch Chambers, shortly after obtaining her administrative license in 1968 at 1237 Fonshill, naming it, “Watkins Nursing Home.”
Just two years before buying the property for Watkins Skyview, Stephens transitioned Watkins Nursing Home to a larger building close by on Euclid St. while the daycare stayed open in the previous building on Fonshill. The new building had 8-10 rooms, accommodating two residents per room. Despite its smaller size compared to modern-day long-term care communities, Burden said this building was still a major step up for the entrepreneur. “It had an office, a living room where families could visit, a kitchen with professional appliances, and a dining room,” Burden said. “Of course, she did not stop there. There was another move for her to make, and a greater need for the community.”
Building Watkins Skyview Nursing Home
In 1968, Stephens married UZ Stephens, and together, they sought out an even bigger opportunity for them, the people of the community, and the residents of Watkins Nursing Home. A bigger opportunity meant building a brand-new facility on an even larger piece of property, and it didn’t take long before the couple found the perfect place to build it.
Burden can recall several fond memories of her childhood in the community of East Oklahoma City, but one of her fondest memories is when she, her siblings, and her mother would go watch movies at Skyview Outdoor Drive-In movie theater.
“Just for fun, my mom tried to sneak us into a movie in the trunk of our car,” Burden said with a laugh. “She said she didn’t mind paying for us, she just wanted to see if she could get away with it.” The convenience in the location of the drive-in movie theater gave Stephens the perfect name for her new long-term care community. “When my grandmother was thinking of names for the new nursing home, she decided to use the name ‘Skyview’ since the drive-in was right across the street,” Burden said.
When Stephens began construction on the 13,644 sq ft. building, her passion for caring for others played a factor in every aspect of the project, including the architecture. “When I asked her the reason for designing the building in the shape of an X, she said she wanted to be able to see every wing at once.” Burden said. “She wanted to make sure you could see every patient, so no one would ever be neglected.”
Burden explained that any challenges the businesswoman may have faced in the process of establishing Watkins Skyview were no match for her grandmother's admirable work ethic and tough spirit. “She was just the type of woman that was built for it,” Burden said. “Her motto was always, ‘If God brought you through it, he’s going to take you to it.’” Stephens's integrative business and money management skills helped her to pay off the $500K+ property within only a five-year period. “She believed that if you earn a dollar, you save a dime,” Burden said. “She was just a good manager of money, and most of all, she was blessed, blessed, blessed. When you take care of God’s people, he takes care of you.”
Other than building resident census by moving her original residents over from Watkins Nursing Home, and people in the community coming to her, Stephens's method of finding people in need is certainly not the same method that long-term care administrators use today. “If she was going to the store to shop for the nursing home, and she saw somebody sitting on the street, she would stop and talk to them,” Burden said. “She’d ask them if they were homeless, and needed a place to stay. A lot of times she’d just put them right in the car and take them straight there and give them a nice warm bed with something to eat.”
Stephens's reputation in the East side community also gave her the advantage of easy access to employees who, according to Burden, were always willing to join the team. “When people needed jobs, they would just come to her, and she was happy to put them to work,” Burden said.
Also by Stephens's side in operations of the property, was her daughter-in-law, Betty, as her executive assistant, and her son, Robert. “My father never left her side,” Burden said. “He played a hand in every decision that was made. He helped wherever she needed him to, and more.” Stephens' granddaughters, Phyllis Lynch Chambers and Burden, helped wherever they could, such as working on the floor as CNAs and CMAs, in the kitchen as dietary-aids, coordinating activities, and even helping in the office from time to time.
Stephens had simple stipulations when it came to how her employees should interact with the residents. “She said, ‘take care of the people, love the people, and treat them like family,’” Burden said. “We always had a great staff. It makes our family incredibly pleased to know that Voyage Long Term Care values those same principles when caring for their residents.”
Throughout the years of its operation, Watkins Skyview Nursing Home served not just as a nursing facility that offered 24/7 nursing care, diet-aligned meals, and modern therapy, but it was home. To Stephen especially, it was a place where everyone was family. Stephens was involved in day-to-day operations until just two years before her passing in 1984.
Stephens's daughter-in-law, Betty, then assumed the role of administrator, and her granddaughters, Burden and Chambers helped their mother to continue operation until their father, Robert Lynch, passed away in 1998, when they chose to lease the building, and respectfully change the name to what is now called Skyview Nursing Center.
Burden noted that all of Stephens' establishments served a much greater purpose than just another long-term care community, “In the 50's and 60's, there were so many people in our community who needed help and had no place to go,” Burden said. “Unless they were staying with their families, there were no real nursing centers for African American citizens to go in to, but she provided that.”
Though it has been almost 30 years since the Stephens's passing, her legacy and inspiration are still more alive than ever. Burden and her sister, Chambers, started businesses of their own throughout their work-life in inspiration of their entrepreneur grandmother.
Together, the sisters operated the daycare center on Fonshill for a number of years before Burden went on to open her own salon, specializing in manicures, and Chambers went on to service nine different cookie bakeries across Oklahoma City. Stephens' two grandsons, Irish and Terry Lynch, founded their own families in Dallas, and work as computer analysts. Even today, a number of Stephens's great grand children own and operate their own businesses.
Burden says that her family takes a lot of pride in the successes of their grandmother. "Her intention was always to leave a legacy," Burden said. "She used to always tell me that what she does is for generations to come." Burden said that one of the biggest moments for her family was when they inducted Stephens into a Black history exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center. "We are very proud to represent such a woman as Viola. In her exhibit, she's displayed among several prominent Oklahoma Black businessmen, and she is the only female in that exhibit. They call her a 'Shero'. She is the 'Shero' in that exhibit."
When Voyage Long Term Care took management of the property in 2019, Stephens's family found rest in knowing that their grandmother’s nursing home would be in good hands. Even though the long-term care management company has made its own changes to several aspects, respect for its deep roots has always been kept in mind. "Family is something I truly strive for our organization to represent," CEO and Founder of Voyage Long Term Care, Brad Underwood, said. "It's an honor to keep the spirit of family that Mrs. Stephens established alive."
As a leader, Stephens held many admirable qualities that anyone who knew her could name. However, Burden says that there was one quality that stood above the rest. "She stood up for what she believed in," Burden said.