Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Milwood” series.
Fate seems to be taking a heavy but kind hand in the lives of Curtis Whitaker and Scott Stokes, who relocated to Kalamazoo’s Milwood Neighborhood about 18 months ago from Battle Creek.
Whitaker provides a truly condensed version of things:
“Someone dropped off a 6-month-old baby and we are now parents. We adopted the baby,” he says, referring to him and his husband Stokes. “Anyhow, we decided that we had to do what’s best for this child. So we bought this house because it was next door to the school. He’s 5 and a half years old. … He’s changed our entire world.”
The men are active duty Air Force retirees who built a business just west of Battle Creek while in the military. That business, called Southern Exposure Herb Farm
, started in 1992 as an herb garden but grew to have lush floral gardens. And those were used to host barn and farm weddings, workshops, and special events. The business also operated an overseas travel company (Travel with Scott and Curtis
). Whitaker and Stokes continue to operate the travel business. But they sold the balance of the business about a year a half ago in order to raise their son.
“His name is Magnus. Magnus means ‘the great,’” Whitaker says proudly. “He changed our world.”
Scott Stokes, Magnus, and Curtis Whitaker recently moved to Milwood where they could be close to the elementary school.
Whitaker was all enthusiasm early this week after making the trek from his 3611 Lovers Lane home next door to Milwood Elementary School
for school supplies.
“We were there getting his second school box information for online virtual learning,” he says.
He and Stokes bought their 1,500-square-foot home after it had been on the market off and on for many weeks, unusual for an area where the average days on the market is less than 12 days. They paid about $100,000 in a market with homes ranging from about $115,000 to $237,000. But Whitaker says they spent more than twice that amount to completely gut and restore the two-bedroom, two-bathroom cottage-style house. They have added gardens with a Victorian-style look to the 0.28-acre property as well as the home next door, giving new meaning to the words “curb appeal.”
Much is owed to Stokes skills with gardening and the handiwork of Dan Reed, a man who had been homeless for months before Stokes met him and asked him to work. Whitaker, now 65, retired from the military in 2009. Stokes, now 55, retired in 2015. They had no plans that involved children.
“We were supposed to move to New Orleans,” Whitaker says. “That was our retirement dream. And God must have laughed every time we started.”
The yard of Scott Stokes and Curtis Whitaker takes gardening to new levels in Milwood.
Whitaker says he and Stokes became Magnus’ guardians after turmoil in the infant’s family resulted in one of the boy’s grandmothers asking them to care for the baby. She knew them through their business and they had already agreed to serve as godparents.
“The mom and dad weren’t ready to be parents,” Whitaker says. “So they are now involved in his life. But we are his parents. We have adopted him. And he’s got the best of both worlds.”
He says they relocated to Kalamazoo because education is very important to them and they wanted to take advantage of The Kalamazoo Promise
free college tuition program for Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates. They wanted a house close to an elementary school and found their new home because they discovered most people don’t want to be that close to so much activity.
“So we sold our business, moved here, completely remodeled the house inside and out (and) started establishing gardens,” Whitaker says. “… The house was just a shell. We had to redo the electrical, the plumbing, the mechanical, everything. We had to completely re-do the house.”
What’s to like about the neighborhood?
“The neighbors,” Whitaker says with a broad smile. “In a neighborhood, you want good neighbors. We love our neighbors. We help each other out.”
When the lady across the street decided to walk to the school playground with her three young children last Friday, she asked neighbors if any of their kids wanted to come. Magnus and another child joined them.
“Now, the next time, it’ll be my turn,” Whitaker says. “I will walk with the kids. So it’s the neighborhood.”
Do they know their neighbors?
“That’s Grandma Jan Jan,” Whitaker says with a smile, pointing to the house that is second closest to the Milwood Elementary School. “Since we bought this place, she has been very instrumental in Magnus’ education. She’s a school teacher – retired 38 years. We are the luckiest people.”
Janice Schafer, who will be 72 on Oct. 1, is Whitaker and Stokes’ oldest travel partner, having joined them in travel excursions to Europe, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and many other places.
Magnus tears through the back yard in his super hero cape.
When the second closest house to the school came open for purchase, she relocated from her native Jackson and moved in.
Why? “Because of Magnus,” she says.
“I always said, because I never had kids other than my kids at school, that by the time I was old enough to be a grandma, I would hopefully find a child I could be grandma to,” Schafer says. “And it was Magnus.”
She never married or had children of her own.
“It’s hard to meet men when you’re teaching first and second grade – who aren’t already married,” she says with a laugh. “And the other issue is I watched teachers neglect their kids in school because of their family or neglect their family because of school.”
She says Curtis and Scott will do fine raising Magnus because “for one thing, they’re smart enough to know to ask questions about things that they haven’t thought about before, having not had kids early on. And they love him all to pieces. That’s the most important thing.”
Stokes says he and Whitaker had planned to live in the Garden District of New Orleans but really like Michigan.
Scott Stokes gardening skills make the yard of the home he shares with Curtis Whitaker in Milwood a showpiece.
He and Whitaker have had a relationship for the 30 years he was in the military. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was a counterdrug commander for the National Guard. Whitaker served for 38 years and rose to the rank of colonel. He was chief of staff for the Michigan Air National Guard in Lansing.
Whitaker says they lived through days when the military would not tolerate openly gay men, through days of “don’t ask – don’t tell.” He says while the military accepts the presence of gay service members, coming out as gay would be very difficult.
The men married about two years ago at the Kalamazoo County Courthouse in order to be able to adopt Magnus.
“I believe in God,” Whitaker says, “This is God’s plan -- Magnus being in our lives, the fact that this house came open, and Grandma Jan Jan now lives next door.”
Stokes says, “It gives you purpose, a legacy. You can have things in life but I think kids really make it magical. They seem to really pull things together.”
Photos by Taylor Scamehorn, unless otherwise indicated. See more of her work here.
Photos by Fran Dwight. See more of her work here.