For his livelihood, Stephen Keller DeBell ran a company that built new homes. But at heart, he was a poet, writer and lover of history.
"He loved the family heritage and American history," said his mother, Mildred DeBell of Centre Ridge. "He wrote acres of poetry, and it was so beautiful."
Sadly, though, two of his poems were read at his funeral Tuesday at St. John's Episcopal Church in Centreville. He died last Thursday, May 26, at age 56 at his home in Warrenton.
"He had a fast kind of lung cancer," said his mother. "It started a year ago February with a cough. He was diagnosed the day after the Fourth of July, and they gave him six months to live."
The DeBell name is well known in Centreville and Fairfax County. Beginning in 1952, Stephen's father Stuart served 16 years on the county Board of Supervisors, including two terms as chairman. Mildred is a local historian and in 2003 was named Sully District's Lady Fairfax. And for 26 years, the family owned Centreville's Newgate Inn — the central gathering place for local residents in the 1970s and '80s.
The DeBells originally came to Centreville in 1871 and, at one time, owned 500 acres stretching past Rocky Run to both sides of Route 29, and in Newgate Forest and along Stone Road. Stephen grew up on a farm in the middle of Centreville with his brothers, Stuart, now of The Plains, and John, now of Catharpin.
The family home was where the Centreville Regional Library now stands and, in 1968, the house was moved to Centre Ridge to make room for it. Stephen was an avid reader, enjoyed collecting stamps and shared many of his mother's interests. "We thought alike and we both wrote," she said. "He's the youngest — he was my baby, and he and I were close."
He also loved music and, as a teen-ager in the 1960s, when the Beatles became popular, he and some friends started a band called The Precious Few. Said DeBell: "He played guitar, and the reverend let them practice in the vestry at St. John's."
Stephen majored in history at VCU and began working in construction. He smoked, but not heavily, and DeBell believes his illness might be attributed to his career, "working around steel and what have you. Back then, they didn't have the protections they have today." But no one knows for sure.
He and Linda, his wife of 36 years, raised two children, Stephen K. DeBell Jr., 34, of Warrenton and Patricia DeBell Brady, 26, of Spotsylvania. Patricia and her husband Michael Brady are expecting their first child in November.
"I told her Stevie would never see his grandchild," said DeBell. "And she said, 'Yeah, but he patted my stomach." He began chemotherapy after his diagnosis and, last August, he was in and out of the hospital, suffering from the side effects.
"He just went gradually downhill and, finally, [the doctors] gave up here," said DeBell. "So on my 87th birthday, March 16, we took him, on oxygen, to the Cancer Institute of America in Tulsa, Okla. He was there for two months, but it had spread too much and they couldn't help him. Around May 19, we returned home."
The Rev. Howard Kempsell officiated at his funeral Tuesday, and Stephen was buried in St. John's cemetery. In lieu of flowers, contributions in his name may be made to the St. John's Episcopal Church Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 2360, Centreville, VA 20122-2360.
Meanwhile, in the hearts and minds of those who loved him, Stephen DeBell will always live on. He'll also be remembered through his written words.
Of his family, he wrote, "Knowing I was the progeny of great patriots in prior years, and hearing stories, left me with a feeling that I was somehow connected by more than blood relations." Two of his poems — one written for his mother on Mother's Day, and another that he wrote for her about his father when he died in April 1980 — were read at his funeral.
Although he made his living in construction, managing Seville Homes in Annandale, Stephen wrote every chance he could. Years ago, a magazine called the Barnes Review published an article he wrote on the Bill of Rights. And he'd carry notebooks with him at job sites. On one side of the page, said his mother, would be information about the home under construction. And on the other side would be a poem he'd written.
"He was a sweet, gentle person, loved talking to people and was a deep thinker," said DeBell. "It's too bad that he went so early in his life because he had so much to give. But something good always comes of things, and now his son Stevie is finding all of his works stashed all over his house. I've been in tears going through it all. So his life is just starting to be remembered by all those whose lives he touched."
When Stephen DeBell died, he was in his mother's arms: "He opened his eyes and I told him goodbye. It was a comfort, in a way; we hated to see him suffering."