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`Grandpa’ was man of action, not words

by Carrie Click
Post Independent Staff

RIFLE – Carl Murphy Stephens was only 4 years old when his family packed up the covered wagon and moved west to the Piceance Creek Basin north of Rifle.

It was 1919, and, according to Carl’s son Lester, it was a pretty rough and tumble trip. Carl’s parents, Elbert and Bertha Stephens, brought their entire brood with them – a total of seven kids.

“My grandmother said that after she made that trip, she never wanted to go picnicking or camping ever again,” Lester said with a smile.



Carl Stephens died in Rifle on Aug. 8, 2003, at age 87, leaving behind three sons, two daughters and a family that includes nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

“We’re pretty close-knit,” said Lester, who lives in Rifle. Four out of five of Carl and Martha Stephens’ children settled in Rifle with their families.



Lester said he thinks his father pretty much decided when it was time to go.

“He lived with my younger brother Reed up until this past June,” Lester said. When Carl took a spill at Reed’s house, though, he – not his sons – decided that he needed to be admitted to the Colorado State Veterans Nursing Home in Rifle.

“It was Dad’s idea,” said Lester. “It wasn’t ours. He was losing his eyesight, and he’d lost his driver’s license. I think after that, he gave up.”

Carl’s headstrong decision to move into the veterans home typifies his approach to life. He was drawn into tough occupations – sheepherding, ranching, mining – and saw more than he’d ever say during his time in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

“He was pretty quiet until he got to know you,” Lester said. “He was never one to boast.”

Two bronze stars and more

After attending one-room schoolhouses in Piceance Creek and Rulison, Carl struck out on his own, working for ranchers and sheepherders and in mines in Colorado and Utah.

During one stint as a gold miner in Redcliff near Minturn, Carl got caught in a cave-in and broke his back.

“With a broken back, he pulled himself and another guy who was with him out of the mine,” Lester said. “He didn’t much talk about it.”

During the war, Carl served on the European front, earning two bronze stars, citations for good conduct, the European African Middle Eastern service medal, and battle honors for gallantry and extraordinary heroism in armed conflict with the enemy.

But you wouldn’t know it by talking to him.

“He wouldn’t tell anybody about that stuff,” Lester said.

He also didn’t say much about what he saw during wartime, but Lester remembers his father once talking about seeing an Air Force airplane take off and instantly explode.

“He didn’t say anything except that a piece of the pilot was the biggest thing they found in the wreckage,” Lester said.

Known as “Grandpa”

Back in the United States, Carl met and married Martha Kaufman in 1946. The family lived in Bonanza and Myton, Utah, and in Rangely while Carl worked in the oil and gas industry before “coming home” to Rifle in 1960.

“He saw more than one boom and bust in Rifle,” said Lester of the ever-changing economies of Garfield County.

In 1982, Carl suffered a stroke, which limited his speech and affected his mobility. But he’d still manage to cut wood with a chain saw.

“He’d cut a quarter cord a day,” Lester said.

Often, Carl would head into the backcountry, not telling anyone where he was going. Sometimes, he’d get stuck, and his sons would have to figure out where he might be and go look for him and pull him out.

“He’d get into trouble,” Lester said, “Not bad trouble. Just trouble. After his stroke, sometimes he’d lose his ability to think, `Maybe this road isn’t wide enough for me to get through,’ and he’d slide off.”

In 1992, Martha died and Carl began being known around town as “Grandpa.”

“Everybody would call him `Grandpa,'” said Lester. “There’s even a breakfast item on the Base Camp Cafe’s menu on Third Street in Rifle called `Grandpa,’ after him.”

Grandpa is gone, but the generations of Stephenses keep his memory alive, including Lester and his wife Alethea, Marvin and Terry Stephens, Reed Stephens and Charlene Stephens, all of Rifle. Daughter and son-in-law Carol and Pat Hisel live in Mesa, and Carl’s sister, Mary Ann Erickson, lives in Silt.

Further afield, Carl’s brother Leslie Stephens lives in Milwaukee, and his aunt, Alma Creel, lives in Las Vegas.

“He was an outstanding person,” said Dene Johnson, who officiated at Carl’s memorial service at the First Christian Church of Rifle. “He was a wonderful gentleman.”

And when asked what was the most significant thing his father ever taught him, Lester has a simple answer.

“To be honest,” he said, without hesitation.

Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. 518

cclick@postindependent.com


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