In the spacious, Southwestern style home he built in 1975 high on the steep west bank of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque I stepped into his study and gasped. There he sat facing his computer, happy, laughing, surrounded by a delightfully confusing jumble of papers and stuff – Was the memorial “Celebration of Bob’s Life” I had just attended in the Kimo Theater on Central Avenue one of the hoaxes he so relished in life? …
* * *
I admired Bob. I admired his accomplishments, his drive, his sincerity, his humility, his dedication to the betterment of the profession, and above all his wonderful sense of humor. Bob celebrated life, he filled his surroundings with the paraphernalia of life – the unimaginative nerds amongst us call it junk – his garage was a collector’s dream. And he knew how to live, free, uninhibited – he could wear an old fireman’s hat with the airs of a philosopher – passionate in the pursuit of what he loved and believed in. Bob had lived an exemplary life, as a family man, as a member of the human condition, and as a professional attorney/engineer/surveyor, the last three not necessarily in that order.
It has been said that surveyors should not expect society to set them monuments, because surveyors set their own. Bob has set two kinds of monuments, those of the stake-in-the-woods variety, and those that we all can look up to, tall monuments. NMPS is a monument to Bob. When he died on July 12, 2004 in his home after a protracted battle with cancer, he had given forty-five years of his professional life to it. He helped found it in 1959, he was its first elected Chairman, he was Chairman again in 1961 and President in 1977, he worked tirelessly to keep it alive when it faltered a couple of times, he organized, presided, debated, pleaded, wrote, published, and he was there when he was needed. I have a huge mailbox, he wrote with his characteristic wit, if you are out of town, call before 8 AM because it is cheap and I ought to get up anyway. Let me hear from you!
In time he became the Grand Old Man of our society, the ‘Dean of Surveyors’ as the Albuquerque Journal called him, even though he was much too modest to welcome any praise and recognition. Reading the present memorial would have embarrassed him. Twice, in 1988 and again in 2001 NMPS honored him by naming him “Surveyor of the Year”. Oh shucks, he said in accepting the award.
Bob hated indifference, detachment; he used every trick in the book to get surveyors involved in the development of their profession. He wrote: Get mad because you don’t like things the way they are, or get mad because some son-of-a-bitch wants to change everything. Then go out and do something outrageous so we will have some news for next month. Translation: Be passionate.
Many times he was philosophical: The only way to be totally wrong on an issue is to feel that you positively know the answer. The only way to be totally right is to understand all of the reasons for doing one thing or another. Translation: Be thorough.
His passing has left a void. Anybody who has ever heard him speak at the annual conventions, the workshops, or at business meetings and informal gatherings will miss his wit, his flamboyant demeanor and colorful expressions, his passion in lifting our profession a notch or two higher in the eyes of the public. When you go into a hospital, he once told a group of surveyors, you will see a fellow in a white coat walking down the hallway with a covered bedpan in his hand; nobody is calling him a Doctor. Yet when people see a raggedy-assed individual behind a tripod, they call him a surveyor. We will have to change that perception. Bob worked to help surveyors make the transition, and every time, after hearing him speak I went home holding my head just a little bit higher.
He was born Robert Boylan Stephenson on September 6, 1927 in Ames Iowa, where his father owned a dry goods store. The youngest of five children, Bob lost his mother at the age of eight. When only a few years later death also claimed his father, he moved to Albuquerque in 1943 to live with a sister. After he graduated from Albuquerque High School he served two years in the Navy. From 1947 until 1951 he studied at UNM, earning a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. While a student he was a member of a debating team, which may have been a source of the speaking skills he later used with great effect. There followed two years in the Air Force. In 1952 he launched on his surveying career, an endeavor for which he had aquired a liking during summer jobs as a student.
While the decade of the 1950s with a wealth of on-the-job experiences turned the young engineer and surveyor into a pro (he became registered PEPS 2093 in 1955), he found the time to pursue the study of law. What originally was intended as an enrichment of his training as an engineer turned into a law degree from UNM in 1959, the year that he became a co-founder of the association that in 1997 became NMPS.
In April 1954 he took time out to marry the former Mary Ann Hastings, a marriage of which he still could celebrate its Golden Anniversary only three month before his death. Of their two children, Craig Stephenson lives in Taos and Ann (Mrs. Rodolfo Cortés) in Albuquerque.
Bob Stephenson practiced surveying, engineering and law, engineering at times in partnership with Jerry Bohannan (PEPS) and law as a partner with Nordhaus and Moses, and later in Pitchford Stephenson. His accomplishments as a surveyor and his contributions to the betterment of our profession as well as NMPS are too well known to our membership to need elaboration. For the benefit of our younger peers I will only mention his work on our Minimum Standards, the four-year university requirement program, his work as an investigator for the State Board of Registration (1993-2000), and his many years as President and chairman of various committees of NMPS. He was the founder and developer of Stephenson Software, providing computer programs for surveyors nationwide, and also wrote a book on the New Mexico State Plane Coordinate System. The latter was in conjunction with his work as a founder of an educational program for surveyors. This writer is a graduate of his first surveyor’s refresher course in preparation for he State Exam, which he organized and taught in a small office on Truman Street in Albuquerque in 1968.
As a resident of Southern New Mexico I am El Paso oriented, I only occasionally read the Albuquerque papers. I have only scanty knowledge of Bob’s work on the Albuquerque community scene, but I was told it was not lacking. He worked on the City Planning Commission, Environmental Planning Commission, taught as Adjunct Professor of Engineering at UNM, and wrote many letter to the editor of the local press. If his work in NMPS is any indication, he did it with conviction and he was an asset to all of the above.
Surveying was his conspicuous love and our Antepasados no doubt will receive him with open arms and welcoming hands. His family described him as “gregarious”, and so he has joined a great bunch of cohorts, those in whose footprints we follow, and whom we remember by the monuments “which they themselves have set”.
* * *
…I gazed at that image. Recognition – Amusement – Sadness – Reality, compressed into an instant of time. No, that fellow at the keyboard was much too starched to be the real Bob, nothing but a life-size and lifelike photo of him, mounted on Styrofoam and skillfully placed exactly where and how I would expect him to sit. Touché Bob, you have amazed me one last time. Death be not proud.