Harley club turns Oak Harbor barista's life around

JD Stewart owns a 2009 Harley-Davidson. He took a suggestion from a friend and purchased the motorcycle shortly after his wife of 22 years died from cancer. He said owning a Harley and becoming involved with the North Cascades chapter of Harley Owners Group has impacted his life significantly. - Ron Newberry / Whidbey News-Times
JD Stewart owns a 2009 Harley-Davidson. He took a suggestion from a friend and purchased the motorcycle shortly after his wife of 22 years died from cancer. He said owning a Harley and becoming involved with the North Cascades chapter of Harley Owners Group has impacted his life significantly.
— image credit: Ron Newberry / Whidbey News-Times

It’s not the espresso that perks JD Stewart up.

It’s life itself.

As a customer app- roached the drive-up window at Star-bucks, she was greeted by a gray-goateed, middle- age man buzzing near the register. Like a kid, Stewart had something he couldn’t wait to share.

“I’m excited,” he told the woman. “The Hogs will be in town. So keep your children locked up.

“I’m just kidding!”

Stewart has been on cloud nine since the day he learned that Oak Harbor would be the host city for the 2013 Washington State Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) Rally.

The time has arrived as nearly 400 Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders are converging on Oak Harbor for the July 18-20 event, which includes a parade through downtown on the first night.

“The big thing is sharing it with your community,” Stewart said. “If anyone knows me, I eat, sleep, live and dream Harley-Davidson. I try to spread that to all the people I know and all my customers. Just being able to share what we do as a group is kind of exciting to me.”

Stewart, 52, credits his association with the North Cascades chapter of H.O.G. with helping him heal from a deep loss.

In October of 2009, he lost his wife of 22 years, Carla, to lymphoma.

His life revolved around Carla and the two daughters she brought into his life from a previous marriage. His perky personality was attacked head on when they both learned that months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments weren’t going to save her life.

Carla asked to return home to Oak Harbor to die, and did so at her home with her husband and daughters at her side.

Stewart remembers realizing that the only future he had ever envisioned was now a vast blank space that had been wiped clean.

Retired from the Navy, Stewart needed nearly a month before he could return to work at Starbucks, and once he did, noticed others struggled to try to talk to him, not knowing what to say.

“They’d tell me that their grandfather died,” Stewart said. “I would think, ‘You didn’t live with your grandfather for 22 years. Your grandpa wasn’t supposed to go into forever with you.’ Or they’d go, ‘I lost my uncle, or I lost my aunt.’ People try to say it’s the same loss. It’s not. Loss is loss, but there are different levels.”

Coping with grief, Stewart began listening harder to his counselor and to friends.

One friend in particular suggested that Stewart, who had ridden motorcycles most of his life, do something for himself and buy a Harley-Davidson.

That same friend recommended he branch out and get acquainted with a new crowd, the H.O.G. North Cascades chapter whose membership is based around the Skagit Harley-Davidson dealership in Burlington that is owned by Oak Harbor residents Fred and Lorie Smith.

The thinking was that Stewart could separate himself from his past life and take a step toward a new beginning.

“(My friend) said, ‘Here’s what you need to do. You need to separate yourself and get something that’s only you.’ Even my counselor said that, this nice lady from hospice. She said the same thing. She said to separate yourself because everything you’ve had to this point was you and Carla. She said now you need to separate and say, ‘OK, this is just JD because Carla’s gone. She’s not coming back in two weeks. She’s not going to get better.’ So you need to separate and say, ‘I need something that says this is me.’”

That something turned into being a two-toned, 2009 Harley-Davidson Softtail Deluxe that he purchased for $22,500.

Stewart started a new life with a new crowd that was unaware of his old one. He made new friends, joined the chapter, and became activities officer for a group of motorcycle enthusiasts with a passion for riding Harleys and enjoy spending time together.

He got the courage to date again and met a woman that would become his new wife, Angela.

Eventually, the wackiness returned, and longtime friends and acquaintances got to see the old Stewart again at the Starbucks on Highway 20 near 7th Avenue.

The guy buzzing around the drive-through window in the early morning hours.

“My customers know that I’m this super wild crazy person with more energy at 4:30 than they’ve ever seen,” said Stewart, whose initials stand for James Duran. “They’ll say, ‘How can you be this energetic at 4 o’clock in the morning?’”

It’s not caffeine, though

Stewart does start his day with a four-shot cup of espresso with a pump of vanilla, two squirts of caramel, two Splendas and a splash of nonfat milk.

He’s only a one-cup a day sort of guy.

“I just call it my quad,” he said. “It just keeps my headaches at bay.”

Stewart said he’s experienced a rebirth since he got involved with the Harley-Davidson group, which rekindled his love for motorcycles. And it led to the courage of finding his new love, Angela. They are celebrating their first anniversary this month.

Stewart will be riding near the rear of the pack as Harley-Davidson riders take part in a parade through downtown at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 18. The parade route will include a trip down Midway Boulevard and Pioneer Way before veering down Ely Street and back to the Coachman Inn & Suites parking lot.

“What this did for me, it brought me back to this new person, sort of the old new person,” Stewart said. “I was a new person because I was no longer J.D. and Carla. I was just J.D., the happy guy who rides a Harley. And the Harley makes you happy. How can you not be happy out there riding at 70 mph with the wind blowing through your hair, going ‘Whoooo!’”

He said through all the black leather and behind those sun glasses are just regular folks.

“H.O.G. is a great group of people,” he said. “We’re not the Sons of Anarchy. Oh God, we’re not that. That’s not the Hogs. The people who ride for H.O.G. are your everyday people. The bankers, the lawyers, people like me, baristas. It’s a group of real tight people.”

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