WILMINGTON - It's shaping up to be a banner year for Guy Stephenson. The downhill skiing season is seemingly endless, he'll turn 60 years old on July 1, and he's the reigning Citizen of the Year for the town of Wilmington.
The Whiteface Region Business & Tourism Center honored Stephenson with the award March 18 at the annual Wilmington Community Dinner at the Hungry Trout Restaurant.
"I was surprised," Stephenson said the Friday before the dinner. "When I was first told, I said I've got to respectfully decline. I didn't feel that I had done anything special to be recognized. But I guess someone else thought different. They said declining wasn't an option."
Guy Stephenson, as a licensed guide, leads a “Whiteface Iron Mine Tour” in May 2007. (Photo provided)
That someone else was Karen Peters, president of the Wilmington Historical Society. Stephenson was a charter trustee of the organization when it was founded in 2003, and Peters had nothing but kudos for him when sending biography information in an email to Michelle Burns, operations manager of the Whiteface Region Business & Tourism Center.
"The WHS would certainly not be where it is today without him!" Peters wrote. "He has our highest admiration."
Stephenson is proud of his recent work on the history book, "Wilmington and the Whiteface Region," released by Arcadia Publishing in August 2013. He and several members of the historical society met every week for months, sometimes two to three times a week, to craft the book.
"It was a lot of work, but I'm glad we did it," Stephenson said. "It was very good to get that history down."
Stephenson is also active on the town's Cemetery Committee, which takes care of the two public cemeteries in Wilmington: Pleasant View Cemetery on Bonnieview Road and the Haselton Cemetery on Haselton Road. When Stephenson asked why the committee wasn't very active, he was nominated to join the group.
"That's what seems to happen when you ask questions about something or wonder why something isn't getting done," Stephenson said. "Well (they say), 'You could be on the committee.' So that's how that happened to me."
Committee members have been working on fixing some of the gravestones in the cemeteries.
"There are stones that have tipped over and stones that need to be repaired," Stephenson said. "If the family members are gone, there is nobody to take care of them."
The town of Wilmington budgets $1,000 every year for the Cemetery Committee's work, but it doesn't roll over. It's use it or lose it, and with Stephenson's help, they're using it.
"So we've come up with a plan to pick some stones in each cemetery that are most likely to be damaged if they aren't taken care of properly, on the verge of tipping over or whatever," Stephenson said.
Asked how he would describe himself as the Citizen of the Year, Stephenson pondered the question and realized that he does a lot more than he gives himself credit. In addition to his work at the historical society and the Cemetery Committee, he's been a fire commissioner for more than 10 years for the Wilmington Fire District and currently serves as the chairman.
Stephenson is active in the Wilmington Fish and Game Club. And he's an avid snowmobiler and was influential in getting a new trail into Wilmington.
"Which has finally happened after many, many years, and I don't know how many foresters we've have gone through, either been transferred or retired, and the work finally got accomplished," Stephenson said.
So much for retirement.
"When you retire, you think you're going to have a lot of time, but I've got involved in a lot of things that take up a lot of time," Stephenson said. "When a person doesn't know when to say no, you can get too busy."
Stephenson retired from the state Olympic Regional Development Authority in July 2009, having worked at the Mount Van Hoevenberg sliding center for 30 years. During his last day on the job, he had a heart attack. He was 55. Now he's enjoying life, volunteering where needed and skiing at Whiteface Mountain almost every day.
Stephenson was raised in Wilmington, as were his parents - at least four generations on his father's side of the family and five or more on his mother's. He was born at the Placid Memorial hospital in Lake Placid on July 1, 1954.
"You might say I'm a Guy Junior," Stephenson said. "My father was also Guy, and my grandfather was also Guy."
Stephenson's grandfather had been the town of Wilmington highway superintendent, and his father started out working for the town highway department before getting into carpentry and working for a contractor.
"The contractor got work at the Lake Placid Club, so my father started working there," Stephenson said. "He worked his way up from being a carpenter, and then he was the shop foreman, and he ended up being the whole foreman. His last title was plant manager and oversaw all the maintenance and day-to-day stuff and the Mount Whitney Ski Center."
Stephenson's father worked at the club for 37 years, until 1989, when he died of cancer a couple of weeks after his last day on the job. His mother, Gladys Preston, grew up on a farm on the Lenny Preston Road.
"Lenny Preston was her father," Stephenson said. "No running water or electricity. Big family. The regular farm was cattle, sheep and raised crops."
In the early 1940s, she moved to Washington, D.C., to become a secretary in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"She was down there seven or eight years and ended up coming back to Wilmington," Stephenson said. "She went to work at Santa's Workshop as office staff there when they opened in 1949, back when the whole staff dressed in costume."
After she married, she worked as a secretary at Haselton Lumber for a short while and then became a full-time homemaker.
Stephenson is an only child. His first six years of school were spent studying in Wilmington, at the Wilmington District 3 School that used to be located behind the current Wilmington Community Center.
"We had three classrooms and six grades," Stephenson said. "We had three teachers. Each had two classes, two grades to a classroom."
Stephenson spent his final six years of school in Lake Placid, graduating from the Lake Placid High School in 1972. After that, he went into the workforce.
"That fall, I went to work at Whiteface as a lift attendant," Stephenson said. "The next spring, I went on to the DEC (state Department of Environmental Conservation) on the hiking trail maintenance crew. We went into the High Peaks on the trails there. We'd spend one week a month at the Lake Colden ranger's station and work out of there. It was a lot of walking, but it was a good job."
Stephenson also worked at the state campsite at Wilmington Notch for the DEC. He began working at the bobsled run in 1978. He calls the 1980 Olympic Winter Games the highlight of his career, as it was the most interesting winter season he'd ever seen.
"It was busy with a lot of long hours," Stephenson said. "We worked from September right to February, seven days a week, 12-hour days. Once the Olympics got going, it was like a big party. There were different people from all over the world and all kinds of interesting and crazy things going on."
Stephenson saw a lot of changes at Mount Van Hoevenberg in 30 years.
"We went through four managers while I was there and three different organizations," he said. "It started out with the DEC, which ran the bob run. Then for a while it was run by the Natural Heritage Trust, a state-oriented trust. Then ORDA took it over in '82."
Stephenson enjoyed his work at the bobsled run.
"I was a bobsled brakeman for the passenger rides for about seven winters and just kind of did a little bit of everything," Stephenson said.
There was even room in his schedule to help with maintenance duties at some of the other ORDA venues. With his commercial driver's license, he was an asset and operated heavy equipment where needed.
"Quite a few years ago, they had a big washout at Whiteface," Stephenson said. "I spent a few weeks down there running machinery and working on the trails. One summer I spent at the ski jumps. and I re-shaped the whole summer freestyle hill. It was interesting. It was good to get a little variety."
With hundreds of Adirondack graduates leaving their hometowns after high school graduation, why stay in the mountains, where opportunities are limited?
"I found work," Stephenson said. "I guess that was the main thing. I never really thought about moving away."
When he was younger, Stephenson traveled a lot to places around the country, including Montana, Alaska and the West Coast. But he decided to stay in Wilmington, closer to his family, the woods and the mountains.
"I could hunt, fish, ski and snowmobile, spend my time outdoors," Stephenson said. "I enjoy a 20-below day much more than I do a 90-degree day."
Stephenson takes advantage of his love for the outdoors and just renewed his New York state guide's license for the second time. He figured it would be a good source of income when he retired. People wishing to see the old iron mines in the Wilmington forest can spend some time with Stephenson as he leads iron mine hikes for the Wilmington Historical Society.
"I've got a great interest in the history of the area," Stephenson said. "I mostly just listened to family stories from my parents, especially out hunting with my father, his brothers and their relatives. Just listening to the old stories piqued my interest."
He heard stories about hunting, fishing, working, fires, floods and great snowstorms in town.
"There's a lot of history here that a lot of people don't realize," Stephenson said. "And the people who know it haven't necessarily recorded it. I'm at fault, too. I should have started putting stuff down 40 or 50 years ago. It so easily gets forgotten or lost or the details get a little fuzzy secondhand."
Stephenson stresses that people take time to sit down with family members and record their family history. Wilmington is rich in it.
"It was pretty well involved in industry at one point," Stephenson said. "Right in the middle of town, next to the bridge and dam, they had a sawmill that was run by water power. They had a gristmill, a starch factory. They had an iron forge there with charcoal kilns sitting nearby producing charcoal to fire the kilns. It must have been a very busy, noisy, smoky place right in the middle of town."
How does Stephenson describe his hometown?
"It's been a good place to grow up and live," he said.