By Jim McLachlan
Above, Lyle and Ruby, out on the town at a popular night club in Chicago, 1944. Photo courtesy of the Stephenson Family Archives.
“The best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person.”
For the past fifteen years or so, I have been aware of the impact of this statement by the bushy-eyebrowed CBS commentator Andy Rooney and his home spun editorials on life and living. I suppose I am even more keenly aware of the truth of this statement since I retired. I have had more time to spend at the local coffee shop visiting with men who were a generation ahead of me, and I have learned to appreciate the lives of people who were on this earth many years before me.
This past month my dear friend and shirttail relative, Colonel Lyle S. Stephenson, passed away at the age of 97 years. Like many of my older friends, Lyle’s life story is well-worth the telling.
Lyle’s obituary read: “Born at Liberty Lake September 20th, 1916, and leaving this life November 21st, 2013.” He died less than a half-mile from where he was born 97 years before. Don’t be fooled by thinking that Lyle didn’t get very far in life.
Many, like myself, spend our entire lives in the same place, but not Lyle. The dash between when we are born and when we die represents a lifetime of living for all of us, but in Lyle’s case, his was a lifetime that had enough challenges, adventures, and accomplishment for at least five men.
In Lyle’s early years he lived with his mother Edna Smith at Liberty Lake. His father died the year he was born. Lyle and his mom worked for his uncle, Gage Neyland, who owned Neyland’s Grove, a summer resort on the west side of Liberty Lake. He tended the family garden, milked the family cow, and in the winter, cut and sold ice from the lake and delivered it to local residences.
In his early teens, Lyle, his sister Ruth, and his mother moved to the Underhill neighborhood on the lower east South Hill, where his mother ran a boarding house. Lyle attended Lewis and Clark High School. Lyle’s early work experience at the family resort had developed his coordination and physical strength, and he discovered that he was a pretty tough kid on the local neighborhood football team. In their spare time, he and his buddies would play tackle football without helmets and pads at Underhill Park, taking on any challengers that might want to test their skills against them.
One of those challengers was the J.V. football team from L.C. After defeating them, Lyle was invited by the L.C. coaches to turn out for the Varsity football team. He was a rugged, well-muscled kid, who by the time he was a senior, weighed 180 pounds. He was a halfback, and also played some at the quarterback position. Lyle graduated from L.C. in 1934, and then he enrolled at Whitworth College, where he played football and became the President of the freshman class. Before his senior year at Whitworth, Lyle transferred to Gonzaga University to play football and complete his education. Lyle was an outstanding running back, but he had the misfortune of having a teammate named Tony Canadeo start in front of him. Tony just happened to be one of the best college football players in the nation. After graduating from GU, Canadeo played for the Green bay Packers and was inducted into the Pro Football hall of Fame in 1974.
It was on Lyle’s first trip out of Spokane with the Gonzaga Football team, a train trip to Chicago, that Lyle acquired a life-long passion for traveling and adventure. He was listening to a piano player in a downtown Chicago establishment, and at the night’s end, the piano player said, “See you next week in San Francisco.” Those words, and the images they ignited in Lyle’s imagination, opened the door to a lifetime of travel and adventure, a lifestyle he pursued right up to the end of his long life.
Lyle graduated from Gonzaga University in 1938 with a degree in Philosophy. He later returned and earned his law degree, which he never used, because I am sure it would have required him to settle down in one place, and he wouldn’t have had time to travel and see the world.
After graduating from GU, Lyle became a police officer for the city of Spokane. His job was night foot patrol on the cold, dark streets of downtown Spokane. He was to keep the peace and check the locks and doors of local establishments to make sure they were secure and merchandise was safe. Dairies, bakeries, creameries, and butcher shops were prime targets for thieves that would either load up and take the booty home for the family or sell it on the black market for much needed money. One of the most unpleasant duties of a night patrolman was picking up the bodies of residents who had died during the night in the notorious hearse called “The Black Mariah.” The presence of this vehicle in your neighborhood meant one thing and only one thing: that someone had passed away and was on their way to the city morgue. Lyle said he kept unofficial stats in his head and most people died in the early morning hours closer to sun up than sun down. Through this job, which covered a short span of three years, Lyle developed the skills of working with people, difficult people, a skill that would bode well for the career of his life, the military.
Lyle joined the Marine Corp in 1942. He married the love of his life, Ruby Williams of Spokane, in Sanford Florida in 1943, right before being deployed overseas. While he was waiting to join the Marine Corp, Lyle started flying lessons at Felts Field in the Spokane Valley. This training opened the door to flying the famous P-38 in the South Pacific Theater. Lyle became a “Night Fighter,” navigating the dark skies of the Solomon Islands in search of the Japanese air force. On one night of flying, Lyle said they were lost and couldn’t find the island they were supposed to land on. His navigator was a young 19-year-old kid who was scared and confused. Lyle told him to sit down and be quiet, that he would find the way, which he did, safely landing the plane on an island that was hard to see in the daylight, not least the dark of night. On another mission, Lyle’s plane was hit by enemy fire over Rabaul, but he was able to safely land. At this time, Lyle was a naval pilot but would later return to the Marine Corp.
Lyle’s military career spanned WWII, the Korean War, and Viet Nam. He loved the variety of duties he experienced in the different branches of the military. In the 1960s, Lyle was the head instructor at Oregon State University, preparing future officers for the Marine Corp through the ROTC program. While there, he earned his Master’s Degree in Education. Lyle was always interested in people and how to make them better people. He worked closely with young cadets encouraging them to be the best that they could be. He was a big proponent of finding your niche and making the most of it. He didn’t believe all men were created with equal skills and talents, and that some had to work harder than others to achieve their goals in life.
On another stint in his military travels, Lyle served as an Intelligence Officer at Port Lyautey, Morocco. Lyle loved the people of Morocco, and he visited there on more than one occasion after his retirement from the Marine Corp. Lyle served as a Logistics Officer in Viet Nam in the late 1960s. He was a Liaison Officer in Europe responsible for briefing the NATO Generals every morning on the overnight activities that came off the Teletype machine. On his days off, Lyle would explore the local cities and acquaint himself with the people and their culture. He always contended that you can find good people everywhere in the world. He said when you were walking down the street of a foreign village or town and were not in uniform, no one knew who you were or your rank. Your status in the world didn’t make a hill of beans difference to anyone. People were people and only governments and some leaders were bad.
At different times in his military career, Lyle was in charge of large numbers of troops. The most interesting and historically important responsibility was in 1957. Lyle was in charge of 5,000 young Marines in the desserts of Nevada for the biggest, longest and most controversial nuclear test series in the continental United States. “Operation Plumbbob” was a series of 29 nuclear bomb detonations over a period of six months. The military was interested in knowing how the average foot solider would stand up physically and psychologically to the rigors of the tactical nuclear battlefield. Lyle never talked about the outcome or purpose of the tests. His favorite story was in regards to the 5,000 young Marines he had to keep occupied during the long and sometimes boring days in the dessert. As one might expect there were quite a few fights among the troops. Keeping them busy and occupied was a big challenge for Col. Stephenson. Lyle’s answer: he ordered 100 pair of boxing gloves and built a couple of boxing rings. If you thought you were tougher than the next guy, he made you get in the ring with those 16-ounce gloves and fight it out until they couldn’t lift their arms. This usually only lasted for a minute or two and then the young pugilists were exhausted, unable to talk or swing anymore. Their bravado had up and left them. He said it quickly took care of the problem and the atmosphere calmed down amongst the troops.
Shortly after Lyle’s retirement from the Marine Corp, his wife Ruby died of cancer. At age 59, Lyle’s doctor told him that he would be dead in a year. Little did he know that he would have 38 more years to enjoy this life. Over the years, I was impressed and quite envious of the places Lyle visited.
In his 80s, Lyle drove down south to Augusta Georgia for the Masters Golf Tournament. Another of Lyle’s favorite things was to attend the ten-day extravaganza known as the National Finals Rodeo. Lyle started going when the event was in Oklahoma City and continued to attend up until five years ago in Las Vegas. Lyle continued to travel and visit old friends, usually younger guys that served under him, because most of his contemporaries had died.
On many occasions, I was able to meet some of these people who would come to Liberty Lake to visit their old boss. It was then that I truly started to appreciate Lyle’s life and the legacy he left with those who knew and worked with him. They loved him and respected him because he truly cared about them and their lives. Those of us who met with him at McDonalds at Liberty Lake will miss him greatly. He never boasted, never bragged, and always had a good word for everybody. He had the amazing ability to forget who he was and what he had done and accomplished in his life and enjoy other people’s stories. His mind was sharp and he never missed an opportunity to tell a little joke, always at the appropriate time. He was still driving the week that he died. You could say, yes, “Col. Lyle S. Stephenson” really packed a lot into that short inscription on his gravestone, 1916– 2013.
Rest in peace, dear friend.
Lyle is survived by his two daughters, Lisa Klapp and her husband John of Liberty Lake, and Jill Ward and her husband Craig of Gresham, Oregon. He has six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.