Frank Stephens wore many hats and squeezed many adventures into one lifetime. He loved many things, including his community. He worked many jobs, but all were for the community. In his law enforcement work he saw the ugly side of society. But still, he had a job to do. In his own words his job was “to protect the people of Lowell, sometimes, from themselves.”
Frank was born in Illinois in 1894. His family moved to Lowell in 1910, but he soon left to Montana to be a cowboy, then came Word War I.
On October 20, 1916 Frank joined the army at Fort Douglas Colorado. Between then and his discharge in October of 1920, Frank traveled to San Francisco, Honolulu Hawaii, Guam, Manila, Philippines, Japan, Vladivostok, Siberia and China. He was in Siberia when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out. He worked intelligence, scouting out enemy lines at night. He was later involved in a subversive intelligence action by going to China to bring American prisoners home to California. During his time in the army he suffered an appendicitis attack while on a ship, was stabbed and had a gunshot wound in the shoulder.
Returning from the war, Frank married Ruth Green and they went on to add five children to their family.
Even in his careers, Frank Stephens wore many hats. Early in his married life he ‘clammed’ on the Grand River, gathering clams to sell to the button factory. He worked construction, and had his own tire and accessory business on Main Street. This business is where Lowell Granite now stands. One memory his daughter Linda has is of walking to the police station to meet her dad when she missed the school bus home. She would wait there until he went home. It was here that she met later to be President, Jerry Ford, a friend of her father’s. Stephens and Ford remained friends, exchanging letters throughout their lifetimes.
Frank began working for the Kent County Sheriff Department in 1930 and continued on even when he accepted the job of Lowell Chief of Police. As far as is known, Frank Stephens has been the only one in history to work for the Lowell Police and be deputized by the Kent County Sheriff Department, giving him authority past the city limits. Stephens had been on duty in 1932, working a roadblock, when Officer Charlie Knapp was shot and killed in Lowell by escaping Grand Rapids robbers. As a Sheriff Deputy, Stephens issued drivers licenses through the Drivers’ License Bureau. He continued this until the Lowell office closed in 1965. He retired as police chief at the end of 1959, but continued on as a deputy sheriff. True to his character, when he retired from law enforcement he assured Lowell that in case of an emergency or a disaster he would help in any way that he was able.
One interesting call Stephens had was at the home of Ray Fullington in 1951. The issue was that a big parachute had landed on the Fullington farm. With World War II in the recent past, the Fullingtons were apprehensive about approaching the balloon. Upon examining it, Stephens found it had come from an aeronautical research laboratory in Minneapolis. It was a radio-sonde instrument balloon used for testing humidity, temperature and atmospheric temperature at high altitudes. At their request, Stephens sent the instruments back the Minneapolis lab.
Frank Stephens briefly operated the South Side Garage located next to his home on Segwun Street. Oddly enough, the garage was located on a paper street, (Catherine Street) a street that was part of the Segwun plat that just never came to be. The garage sold gas, until the tanks were pumped out later, but the main attraction was the service work Frank performed. Before there was a bus garage Joe Green used to service the Lowell school busses there at the shop.
Frank served his community with volunteer hours also. During World War II he headed up several World War II bond drives, earning Certificates from the Federal Office of Price Administration for his work. He organized the Lowell Civil Defense Organization, working out of a building at the fairgrounds. A part of the organization was The Ground Observer Corps. The GOC was a volunteer organization used by the Federal Government to track airplanes prior to the DEW-line radar network during the Cold War. Frank was one of the most enthusiastic CDO leaders in the state. He started with 40 observers, but grew the group to over 155 within six months. They were one of the few to cover full time, 24 hours a day. When Dr. B.H. Shepherd joined, Lowell was the first Post to have a medical officer on staff.
He served as head of the American Legion, Treasurer on the Lowell School Board, though rumor has it his wife Ruth helped him significantly with the work load, he was active in his church, the Snow United Methodist Church, the Rotary, and Masonic Lodge.
In 1932 he was part of the first Showboat. He continued to be involved with this for well over 30 years. He served as guide and pilot for 32 years, standing up at the wheel using a bell to signal the men at the motors which direction to turn. He served as Showboat Board President in the 1960’s. In 1965 he was able to boast that he had sailed on every run since the beginning. He loved the Showboat and often invested his own money to help keep it alive.
Frank was part of the Levee Review Club, a group of eleven retired men who met for breakfast every day for over six years! (See ABC Round #1, L is for Levee.)
At his funeral, to honor and respect the many hours given the community, the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, the Lowell Police Department and the American Legion all served as honor guards.
Images: Frank Stephens in uniform, exterior of the Ground Observer Corps. Shed, Fran Stephens receiving a flag.