Sunday, July 17, 2011
Eulogy for my Father
Yesterday I delivered the Eulogy at my father's memorial service. I thought I would share it with you along with some pictures from his life.
Hello everyone, and thanks for coming. My name is Bruce Myles Stephens. My father, Robert Bruce Stephens, was born May 9th, 1928 in Boston, Massachusetts to Vera Bertha Millett Stephens and Myles Joseph Stephens. Raised mostly in Maine, some of his first jobs were working at a truck farm, picking beets and other crops.
He enlisted in the US Navy near the end of WWII and served on the submarine Thresher.
It was while his ship was docked in San Francisco Bay that he went to a USO dance and met Rebecca Monroy, our mother, who was serving in the WACS, women’s Army Corps. She was stationed at the Presidio, and when my father went there to pick her up for a date, he endured the good natured cat calls of Rebecca’s Army colleagues
(“Hey sailor, you lost?” “The ocean’s that way, swabbie.” Etc.)
They were both discharged from the service and married in Lewiston, Maine, November 10th, 1949. They flew to Los Angeles to make a life together. When they got off the plane, they had just a few dollars in their pocket, no job or place to stay, and lived for a brief time with my grandmother, Erlinda Monroy, until such things could be worked out.
My sister Shelley was born in 1950, my sister Stephanie in 1953, I came along in ’55 . 1960 saw the birth of my sister Sarah, followed by our youngest sister Suzanne in 1961. (Yeah, 5 kids! Hey, he did marry a Latina, after all.)
During the 50’s, he held various jobs, working in construction and for a time for Gladding McBean, a company that made ceramic products, dishes, cups, etc. He told me the story of having to climb into a still warm kiln to clean out the damaged pottery. He also owned a gas station for a while and the house next door where we lived.
It was where I skinned my knee one day when his friend Rey, a photographer by trade, was visiting, snapping a photo that, while not particularly flattering to me, I treasure more than gold.
In 1960, at the age of 32, he entered the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Academy to begin a 30+ year career.
He rose through the ranks: Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Commander, and finally Area Commander, considered the 3rd highest rank in the Sheriff’s Department. During this time, and while raising 5 kids, he went back to school getting his bachelor’s in Criminal Justice at Cal State LA and a Masters in Public Administration at USC.
He went on to teach Criminology and The Administration of Justice at East LA City College. In his later years on the Sheriff’s department, his specialty was communications, and part of his job was to travel to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress on behalf of the Public Safety community; basically asking for more radio bandwidth for police and fire departments. These lobbying efforts were largely successful and resulted in the implementation of the 911 emergency system.
He was head of the Inter-Agency Communications task force for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, coordinating communications between more than two dozen agencies. He was very proud of this. His efforts helped to keep the athletes and public safe, and the Olympics came off smoothly. He retired from the Sheriff’s Department in 1988, continuing on for a few years as a consultant to the County because of his expertise in Communications.
In his retirement, my Father reveled in the mutual love of his grandchildren. He always had the time, always had kind words, always some wisdom to share with his kids and grandkids.
He also spent time maintaining his rental properties, always keeping the rents low and the houses in good repair, and treating his renters fairly and kindly. A dream landlord, basically.
I’ve gotta say, growing up with Bob Stephens as your dad was quite an experience. In his prime, he was 6’4”, 220 lbs, strong and fit, great posture, good looking with piercing green eyes and pretty damn smart. We idolized him; even feared him a bit. He was superman; he could lift anything, fix anything, explain anything and you just felt safe around him. He was larger than life. He was the kind of dad that other dads sought out for advice. We are still learning of his exploits and the effect he had on those around him.
My father was many things to many people, and it seemed that each of them had their own name for him! Growing up, his family called him Bruce, so to that side of the family he was Uncle Bruce, or Big Bruce and I was Little Brucie (ouch!) In the Navy and for about a decade after, he was known as Steve. This is when he met my mom, and what she continued to call him. So to that side of the family, and to friends from that era, he is Steve, or Uncle Steve. Then his colleagues in the Sheriffs and assorted friends and neighbors knew him as Bob. And let’s not forget his brother-in-law Carroll Boutte, from Louisiana, used to call him “Robaire”, in effect giving him a Cajun name.
Now, all this was in play the first time my future wife Amy came with me to South Pasadena for a family gathering. About half way home, Amy turned to me with a distressed look on her face and said, “So just what am I supposed to call your Dad, anyway?” To me, it just seemed normal that your dad might have 3 or 4 names.
There is so much wisdom my father imparted to me; I don’t really know where to start. So many times in my life I have asked myself “What would my Dad do in this situation?”, and this is something I suppose I will continue to do. He was spectacularly unpretentious, and would never prejudge someone by their race, appearance or station in life. He talked to everyone. I remember, as a young man, working with him in the front yard of one of his properties. Some local tough guys I knew of from around town came walking by. I stiffened up, knowing that these guys were not to be trifled with. But my Dad engaged them, greeted them and had a short affable exchange that left everyone smiling and chuckling. I saw him do this again and again, in many different situations. Perhaps it was just his nature, or perhaps he knew that the real path to security lies not behind walls and locks, but by engaging your neighbor and staying in touch with the larger community. A lesson we all should heed.
He was a lifelong fitness buff. He bought my first set of weights for me when I was about 12 or 13, and gave me my first real fitness lesson out in the garage with the Sears and Roebuck weights. I still have the dumbbells to this set, believe it or not. Some years later, I was visiting and it was his habit to do a few laps around the elementary school playground across the street. So I joined him and there he was jogging in huaraches! The kind you buy in Tijuana! I said, “Really Dad? Huaraches?” He said, “Yeah, I flop around a bit, but it’s all right.” I’m tellin’ you, the cat was old school! He was still attending, with great pleasure, a senior fitness workout with a personal trainer at a gym in Pasadena up until about a year or so ago. I just wish I’d spent more time working out with him.
We are still finding out just what a warrior my Dad was. When we lived on Rosemont Avenue, near downtown LA, there was an apartment a couple of doors away that housed an immigrant community, and one night there was a ruckus. Of course, big Steve/Bruce/Bob ran out to see what the trouble was. A couple of Filipino men were fighting over a platinum blond. My dad, all 6’4” of him, was able to hold these two men apart by putting one big paw on each of their foreheads. It was almost comical, watching these two much smaller men still try to take swipes at each other under my dad’s arms. He held them that way until the police arrived.
Then there was the time he was driving home in his unmarked Sheriff’s car, and pulled over a crazy driver on the Pasadena Freeway. Turns out the guy was high on PCP, and somehow my Dad subdued him on the shoulder of that old, narrow freeway, until some uniformed officers showed up, when it took two of them to control him. Like I said, the man was a stud. And fearless. Like the time he worked the Watt’s Riots. They had the department on 12 hour shifts, and of course, my Dad had the night shift, when things got heavy. We were so fearful every night as he left for work, we prayed for his safe return. But after it was all over, he even had funny stories to tell about his adventures in one of the worst social insurrections of our time. And such experiences never clouded his judgment about people.
It was about 20-25 years ago I realized that my father had turned into a big loving teddy bear. Like a fine wine, the years had mellowed him and sweetened him and all he wanted was to be a grandfather, and he was one of the best. He kept close tabs on the lives and activities of his grandkids.
I remember coming up for Thanksgiving when Carmen was about 8 and Myles about 4 or 5. Myles had a pair of cowboy boots he always wanted to wear, and when my Dad saw Myles show up in his boots, he got his pair out. They proceeded to put a new shine on both pairs, then gave each other cowboy names (Dusty and Lefty, or some such thing) and used cowboy lingo for the rest of the day, clomping around in their boots and calling each other "pardner", and exclaiming "whoa, Nellie" and the like. For the whole visit, Myles was never more than an arm’s length away from his grandpa, even when he carved the turkey. They were both enjoying the day so much, it was absolutely the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen. My father gained so much joy from days like this; it was hard not to have it rub off on you. Any future granddads out there, I hope you’re taking notes, ‘cuz this is how it’s done.
So when we look back on the life of this man, I am struck by the way he never stopped learning, never stopped growing, never stopped deepening his expressions of love and compassion. He never sought solace in dogma, or retreated into bitterness, but was always engaged with life, questioning, sharing, helping. Laborer, small business owner, Law Enforcement Officer, college graduate, college professor, father, brother, uncle, cousin, friend, and most importantly, grandfather. So many facets of a life well lived. So much wisdom to share.
And in one final act of fatherly love, he helped me to quickly arrange major surgery in March of this year, in effect helping to save my life. To say that I am deeply indebted to him would be an understatement.
I read a quote recently that immediately reminded me of my father, Robert Bruce Stephens, and seems to sum up his philosophy of life:
“Do all the good you can; By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can; In all the places you can,
At all the times you can: To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
That was my father.
So Dad, if you can hear me,
I just want to say that I’m pretty stoked
To be your son.
Having you as a father, friend and mentor has been one of the best things in my life.
With love and gratitude we honor your life today.
The great poet Rumi said:
“Whosoever brought me here is going to have to take me home.”
I believe my father is homeward bound.
Thank you all for coming out to celebrate the life of my father, Robert Bruce Stephens.