Obituary for Bob Stephenson

Good Afternoon,

My name is Fred Roeder. I am a retired surveyor and I live in Tularosa.

There is an expression in surveying that says, A surveyor must follow the footsteps of the previous surveyor which means that a surveyor must investigate what previous surveyors have done in that same area. In an allegorical sense, Bob Stephenson has left footprints that are so distinct that they will influence our profession for a long time yet to come. – I admired Bob. I admired his accomplishments, his drive, and his dedication to the betterment of the profession, his sincerity, his humility, and above all his wonderful sense of humor. And now I mourn his passing.

It has been said that surveyors should not expect society to set them monuments; because surveyors will be remembered by the monuments they themselves have set. Bob has set two kinds of monuments, those that we have to look down to find at the corners of a property, and those that we all can look up to, tall monuments, monuments of the kind it takes an exemplary life to establish.

The New Mexico Professional Surveyors [Society] is a monument to Bob. He has given forty-five years of his professional life to it. He helped found it in 1959, he was its first elected Chairman, 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 if you will, even though he was much too modest to welcome any praise and recognition. Bob once told me, after I had voiced my admiration of him: Ah shucks, if you stick around long enough the venerability factor creeps in; you get accused of things you never did and praised for virtues you never had. That didnt change my opinion of him. Twice, in 1988 and again in 2001 the Society honored him by naming him Surveyor of the Year.

I first met Bob in 1968 when he had put together a refresher course in preparation for the New Mexico land surveyors examination. Bob presented his subject with skill and authority in the easygoing, almost depreciating manner that was his style. The workshop was held in a small office on Truman Street, a couple of blocks north of Central. Of the attendees, all who took the State exam later that fall passed it and became registered.

He was only 40 years old but many already looked upon him as an experienced old-timer. To liven up the subject he would explain in hilarious detail something which everybody already knew, on the premise that after you made people laugh, you have their attention. He would stand in front of the class and say:

You measure distances electronically. We had to use a steel tape, which is nothing but a flat wire graduated into feet. Now we could not lay that tape on the ground because out there in the desert there are rocks and clumps of cactus in the way, – and empty whiskey bottles, which was evidence that we were following in the footsteps of the previous surveyor.

I left Albuquerque in the summer of 69 and did not return to New Mexico until 1977, the year that Bob was for the third time President of the Association. I had returned many times to attend the annual conventions and some of the workshops. If Bob was not already a convention speaker he spoke at the workshops or the business meetings. That was the tail end of an era when surveyors were known mostly for being colorful characters, which is a great asset in Hollywood, but which in our modern society was slowly turning into a liability. Bob worked hard to change that image, yet he was colorful in his own right, he had a colorful way of explaining things.

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 looking individual behind a tripod, they call him a surveyor. We will have to change that perception. Actually he did not say raggedy looking, he said raggedy but then he referred to one of our body parts. 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.

Once he wrote with that subtle admonishing that he did so well: A very large number of you do not feel that the profession measures up to your own personal standards, but you also feel that you are ready to go to work.

In 1987 Bob started a NEWSLETTER for surveyors. For several years he wrote most of its content and his contributions were not only hard hitting and to the point, but witty and a pleasure to read. Even if you didnt agree with him you had the pleasure of enjoying his manner of formulating an argument. He invented a character by the name of Sid. Sid was a surveyor who had a lot of bad habits, like never recording a survey in the courthouse, which made him virtueless, ungodly, depraved, dissolute, obliquituous, and odious. After I had looked up the meaning of some of these terms in the dictionary I came to suspect that Sid not only was a surveyor but also an attorney.

When Bob had mislabeled the month on one of his newsletters he wrote: Last month the Newsletter was labeled May. Do not change your calendar; please note that the year was correctly stated as 1987.

At another time he wrote: I celebrated the birthday of George Washington because he was a good surveyor and because he is the father of our country. I spend the day brushing a line through a cherry orchard. – That was a lie. But since I also did not chop down a cherry tree, the two negatives make a positive and its OK.

Bob hated indifference; he used every trick in the book to get surveyors involved in the development of their profession. He wrote: get mad because you dont like things the way they are, or get mad because some s.o.b. wants to change everything. Then go out and do something outrageous so we will have some news for next month.

In another issue he wrote:
This month I will make everybody mad. Keep reading until you get mad, or if you dont get mad, then get mad because everyone else got to get mad and you didnt.

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.

That was Bob at his finest. Surveyors by and large are not trained to be good public speakers, but Bob was our Mark Twain, he always had a story to tell and he knew how to effectively present it. As a former government employee I wasted a lot of time listening to speeches, I have thoroughly enjoyed any and all contact I have had with Bob.

I like to add a very personal note. In 1988 Bob talked me into writing a historical column for his Newsletter; it turned into a hobby and I am still writing. I didnt teach you how to write, Bob had told me to counter my remark that he had made a writer out of me. No, he hadnt, but he had opened my eyes and made me see that I could write. He got me off my duff. He gave me a forum. He made me take a good look at myself. I will remember him for this and for what I saw in him: a good man who took that road less traveled by, and that has made the difference. – Bob Stephenson will be remembered for a very long time.

Thanks Bob.

About the Author

Fred Roeder, LS

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns. Many surveyors are good writers, especially about technical or legal matters. However, it's not often that we find a surveyor/story-teller who can present historical facts in a manner that makes them fun to read. Fred Roeder is such a writer and we are pleased to present more than 80 of his stories here. Bibliography is a list of the books Fred used in his writings, and includes a numbered index of the articles. Index is a list of all the articles Fred has written and when. Editor's pick: The King Who Had No Title
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