SOOKE HISTORY: Remembering Bill Stephenson

Former fire chief died in hospital on Sept. 11, but leaves behind many accomplishments

A man respected all his life, perhaps that’s how I could best describe Bill Stephenson.

Growing up in a small community, you generally have many good school friends – some move away later and you might not see them much, but with Bill Stephenson, it was Sooke’s good fortune that he never left this town.

Born in Edmonton in 1931, he came here as a youngster with his parents and elder sister Mary; his family settled in at The Bluff on Wright Road (later a senior care home).

Bill recalled that during the Second World War, machine guns were placed on the property by personnel from Otter Point Military Camp, to protect Whiffin Spit.

Quiet and thoughtful, but “one of the guys” in high school, he was soon attracted to hanging around the fledgling little fire hall that was established on Sooke Road by Civil Defence during the war. He also got an after school job learning the auto mechanics trade at Cains Garage.

In 1948, when Sooke Volunteer Fire Department was operating out of its little shelter where Anna Marie Road turns off today, Bill was 17, and was formally welcomed into the group as a firefighter.

In those days, fire alarms were communicated in a more primitive fashion with firefighters’ wives on the alarm telephone list, and the community fire siren (modified from the wartime air raid siren) screaming to alert all firefighters within range.

In the meantime, Bill was not blind to the fair sex and in 1953 married his sweetheart Ruby Sims.

Like many of us, the young couple made their first home in a converted garage.

Late in the 1950s the historic Murray farm was subdivided and Bill and Ruby, along with their contemporaries as neighbours, moved into a fine new stuccoed home on Goodmere Road.  It was here that the couple raised their four daughters: Donna, Brenda, Linda and Laura.

As well as the fire department, responsibly-minded Bill offered himself as a school trustee and served the Sooke School District from 1969 to 1979.

Always alert to historical opportunities for the museum, Bill made sure that school or army hut artifacts destined for the scrap heap, found their way to the museum.

Like everyone, he helped out at each All Sooke Day as well.

Beginning in 1952, volunteer firefighters elected a volunteer chief, and Bill served in this position for two periods, 1957 to 1962 and again in 1976-77.

In 1958 a fine new fire hall was built in the centre of Sooke, a source of great pride to the rapidly developing fire department.

The building had an upstairs lounge and housed the headquarters for the Smokettes, the fire department auxiliary made up of firefighters’ wives, of which Ruby was a member.

In those days, before the B.C. Ambulance’s tenure in Sooke, it was the volunteer firefighters who drove ambulance as well as fighting fires.

When the group restructured to operate with a paid fire chief, Bill went on volunteering as a fire captain and deputy chief.

Save for one possible exception in Ontario, Bill enjoyed the distinction of being the longest serving firefighter in Canada – 62 years.

Throughout those years, Bill supported his family by working as a saw filer at Sooke Forest Products Sawmill (later named Lamford) until his retirement in 1991.

A longtime hobby he also enjoyed was his membership in the Canadian Toy Train Association.

After the current fire hall was built in 1996, and the District of Sooke became incorporated, Sooke’s first mayor and council named the fire hall the W. J. Stephenson Fire Station.

A few years later, in 2008, when Janet Evans was mayor, a celebration party was held in the fire hall for Bill’s retirement.

The Sooke Region Museum had come into possession of the first badge worn by Sooke’s first fire chief, and this gave us the opportunity to join with Mayor Evans and then-chief Steve Sorenson in presenting Bill with the historic badge used six decades earlier.

While I have known Bill Stephenson since school days, I have never known him to behave in any manner other than quietly and kindly supporting his family and his community.  He was “straight-arrow” with no pretensions.

Born an ordinary man, into an ordinary family, his whole life has been a demonstration of an extraordinary personal commitment to serving.

He leaves his wife Ruby, daughter Donna (Keith Clarke), Brenda (Tom Warran) Linda (Brian Brooks), Laura (Mark Horne), eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, many relatives and friends.

Sooke Fire Rescue hosted a celebration of Bill’s life at the W. J. Stephenson Fire Station on Saturday.

•••

Elida Peers is the historian of Sooke Region Museum.

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