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Lyle Stephenson lived many of his 97 years in his hometown of Liberty Lake.

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Touched lives, travel characterized a ‘full life’
12/31/2013 11:13:51 AM

By Josh Johnson
Splash Staff Writer

Lyle Stephenson was born in a Liberty Lake cabin and died just down the shoreline at his home in Sandy Beach. But the near-century journey between those two dates was marked by thousands of touched lives, millions of miles traveled - and perhaps that many jokes and stories. 

The beloved Stephenson, who spent a 31-year career in the U.S. Marine Corp, served in three wars and was honored as the grand marshal of the 2003 Liberty Lake Fourth of July Parade, died Nov. 21. He was 97. A service honoring Stephenson will be held, with full military honors, at 2 p.m. May 3 at Thornhill Valley Chapel, daughter Lisa Klapp said. 

Klapp recalled a life lived traveling the world both during and following a military career that included stops in the U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy in addition to his service in the Marines. 

Stephenson's love for travel was perhaps only exceeded by his love for people, a combination that served him well throughout his life. Klapp recalled a story of Stephenson during his service in Korea. Some U.S. military officials were having difficulties communicating with the local population, "so they called my dad in to deal with relationship issues, because he really loved people," Klapp said.  

Stephenson also loved animals. Klapp said this sometimes made for interesting family pets, including a desert tortoise named George and three wild hedgehogs who joined the family while Stephenson was stationed in Morocco.  

Submitted photo
The picture above shows Lyle during a time he served with the Spokane Police Department. He is pictured with Ruby Stephenson, his wife of nearly 34 years who he married in 1943 before heading overseas to serve as a night fighter pilot in World War II.

Lyle Smith Stephenson was born Sept. 20, 1916, in Liberty Lake. His father, Frank Lyle Stephenson, died when he was 2, and he grew up in Spokane, where his mother Edna Smith operated a boarding house. He worked with his uncle at Neyland's Grove, cutting ice and hauling it by wagon to customers around Liberty Lake. 

He graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 1934 and attended college at both Whitworth College, where he was president of the freshman class and a member of the football team, and Gonzaga University, where he was a member of Gonzaga's last football team. Stephenson graduated from GU with a degree in philosophy and later a law degree. 

He married Ruby Williams of Spokane in Sanford, Fla., in 1943 before heading overseas to serve in World War II as a night fighter pilot. He was shot down over Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, but safely landed. 

Stephenson's military career also spanned the Korean War, and Vietnam. Highlights included teaching future Marines at Oregon State College and serving as an intelligence officer at Port Lyautey, Morocco. He retired from the Marines as a colonel in 1973.

Lyle was preceded in death by Ruby, his wife of nearly 34 years, his sister, Ruth Domke, and LaVerna (Midge) Wacholtz, his loving companion of more than 30 years. 

He is survived by his two daughters, Lisa Klapp and her husband John of Liberty Lake, Jill Ward and her husband Craig of Gresham, Ore.; six grandchildren: Marissa Braff (husband Andrew) of Seattle; Amy Ward (husband Skip Holling) of Tacoma; Holly Thompson (husband Dave) of Franklin, Tenn.; Christopher Ward of Gresham, Oregon; Brooke Johnson (husband Brian) of Tacoma; and Evan Ward (wife Michelle) of Seattle; and eight great-grandchildren. 

Later in his life, Stephenson retained an almost military level of dedication to a social schedule that included daily breakfast at the Liberty Lake McDonald's and lunch at the Spokane Valley Fred Meyer. 

Members of his Tuesday breakfast group, including Clancy and Charlee Pirtle, Lee and Jaye Evans, Skip and Sharon Sandeno Clint Krall and Reta Aris, invited The Splash to visit  about Stephenson at the group's regular meeting time recently. They listed dozens of other names of people who met regularly with Stephenson for a meal and conversation - and not only local friends. 

"He constantly had friends who would come to see him from all over the world, making contact with him from his time as a colonel in the military," Lee Evans said. "He was an amazing person."  

The group, clearly filled with its share of joke-tellers and spotlight-grabbers, emphasized that Stephenson stood out, a sentiment shared by Lisa French, the local longtime manager of the McDonald's.

"I love Lyle," she said. "I think he was the greatest. ... He was definitely the most kind man I have ever met in my life ... and the most positive. To me, he was an inspiration."

French said that Stephenson had a long-running habit of giving her $50 at Christmas with instructions to buy treats for the McDonald's breakfast crew. The McDonald's team had a long-standing tradition as well - throwing Stephenson a birthday party each Sept. 20. 

French also recalled his daily response to how he was doing - some variation of "I'm still looking down at the grass" - as one of many characteristic sayings. 

"He always had a quick response," Clancy Pirtle agreed. "He could have been a master of ceremonies any place. He was a sharp thinker."

Lee Evans said Stephenson's generosity stuck out among a long list of defining qualities. 

"I'm truly going to miss Lyle, truly going to miss him," he said. "It's a sad deal, but you can't say he didn't live a full life. I don't know anyone who lived a fuller life."