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Bayfield’s Joe Stephenson: Man or myth?

Joe Stephenson served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. (Courtesy)

Dear Mr. Line: So, I’m reading about upcoming events in Bayfield, and I say to myself, “I wonder who this Joe Stephenson was who was such a big deal that they named a park after him?” And while we’re at it, let’s find out for whom every park in La Plata County was named, knowing full well that this will lead to a hornet’s nest of finding that many of our treasured spaces are named for horrible people and then we’ll have to have numerous public debates that will result in us renaming them for less horrible people. Like me, maybe. – A Concerned Abolitionist

Dear Abolitionist: Leaving no stones unturned except the really heavy ones, Action Line delved into the life and times of Joe Stephenson. The report came back squeaky clean. If there is dirty laundry to air, it is still in someone’s clothes hamper. If there are skeletons in the closet, they are at an abandoned house that Action Line was unable to break into. If there is a smoking gun …

Right. You get the drift.

“He’s a mythic character. He is a composite of all that was good,” said Bayfield Town Board member Josh Joswick. “He tamed the Pine River Valley. Our version of Paul Bunyan.”

Joswick is such a jokester. Action Line needs to call him for answers more often.

As Joswick said in earnest, and others repeated in some form, Stephenson was involved in and did a lot for the community.

After contacting several longtime Bayfield residents, Action Line finally hit the jackpot with Phyllis Ludwig, a self-professed “old-timer” who knew Joseph Lee Stephenson and his family. Ludwig is also a self-professed “loudmouth” who has stood up and objected when people talk about renaming the park.

Here’s a synopsis of his life:

He was born in New Mexico in 1930 and moved to Bayfield, then a town of 277, as an infant. He served in the Navy during the Korean War, and during his service married June Martin in 1951. June’s father, Charlie, owned Martin’s Boot and Saddle Shop on Mill Street, and Joe went to work for Charlie. They made and worked on saddles and bridles, anything involving horses and pack animals.

After Charlie died in 1971, Joe and June took over the store. Joe Stephenson became a town council member, and helped begin the town planning commission and was instrumental in establishing a sewage treatment facility, among other deeds. He was a quiet man.

“When he spoke, everyone listened to what he had to say,” Ludwig said. “He was well-respected. He helped people out when they needed it.”

Ann McCoy Harold, former owner of the Pine River Times, concurred that Stephenson made his impact quietly. He sponsored youth baseball teams, and was known for being very supportive of other youth sports and activities.

“He was respectful to everyone,” Ludwig said. “You don’t see that very much anymore.”

Stephenson was just 51 when he died in 1982. Around the late 1990s, the Bayfield School District sold land to the town, which created the park. Joe Stephenson Park has become the hub of in-town recreation.

Times have changed. The population has reached an estimated 2,685, 10 times that of 1930. Some people want to change the name of the park. Others want to preserve its history. Action Line just thinks it’s neat that a level-headed, good-hearted, community-minded man is memorialized. We should all strive to be this composite of all that is good.

Right?

Dear Action Line: Since we are all about safety, will the proposed tunnel below Camino at 12th Street be large enough to accommodate the fire department’s huge new truck that is 9 feet, 6 inches wide and costs $1.2 million? – High and Tight

Dear High: We are not aware yet of all this truck’s capabilities. Perhaps it can shapeshift, like those Transformers you see in the movies.

Durango Fire Protection District’s newest ladder truck, dubbed “Tower 1,” can reach 100 feet high. Action Line is assuming that the tower can also just reach in sideways and pluck people out of any pedestrian passageway, or tunnel, that is built.

Therefore, it does not need to drive through the tunnel.

We’ll just have to wait and see. Thanks for the question.

Email questions and suggestions to actionline@durangoherald.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. For those who may be confused, Rank Park is named after Robert W. Rank, Durango’s city manager from 1960 to 1980. It was not named Rank Park because it smells bad. Action Line passed through recently and it smells just fine.

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