ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ask John E. Stephenson how he made it to age 100, let alone in such good shape, and his answer is simple.
“I guess I should have joined the Mormons, because I don’t believe in smoking or drinking … .
“And I’ve been outside a lot. I never had a desk job.”
That life of physical activity ranged from distributing phone books as a kid to building a road into the Valle Grande in his first adult job with the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, to his career with the National Forest Service, patrolling from the back of his own horse, Ginger Ale (offspring of Ginger).
And, oh yeah, he played football and other sports in high school, and won national trophies in weightlifting during his 70s and 80s. That’s an age range, not the calendar years.
Not to mention the work that most people these days know him for: carving a thriving farm out of land near the Santa Fe River channel in Agua Fria Village at San Ysidro Crossing that has provided produce to local food charities for the past few decades.
Stephenson’s century birthday will be celebrated beginning at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Santa Fe Community Farm.
“I always wanted to farm,” Stephenson said. He actually grew up in town, at 232 Hillside Ave., which is now part of the Inn on Paseo, said son Roy Stephenson. John Stephenson’s parents, originally from Iowa, came to Santa Fe for the same reason as many people early in the 20th century: His father had tuberculosis and came here for “the cure.”
“They used to have them (TB patients) camp out in tents,” thinking it would help the condition, John Stephenson said.
As an adult, he initially acquired five acres at what is now Osage Street near Frenchy’s Field. “But that area has caliche, so it’s not good to grow things,” he said.
So he asked around and found a parcel of land that is now the Santa Fe Community Farm, but was known as Rancho Simpatico when the family first lived there around 1950.
A 90-foot well was drilled on the site, giving the farm rights and access to groundwater, a move that saved the farm when dams went up to hold back water for a drinking supply, drying up the Santa Fe River for most of the year.
Many other farms around Agua Fria couldn’t survive after that, Roy Stephenson said.
John Stephenson, who attended the first burning of Zozobra and was one of the first three Eagle Scouts in Santa Fe, remembers when his mother was the operator for Santa Fe’s telephone system and his father handled the outside work. And that was it. They WERE the telephone system, he said.
The young John sometimes went to get milk from the archbishop’s cow, housed in quarters next to what was then St. Vincent Hospital on Palace Avenue.
He remembers when Cienega Street really did go through a wetland and the old penitentiary, located at Pen Road between Cordova and St. Francis Drive, marked the end of town. And his graduation class from Santa Fe High was all of 26 seniors.
He unwittingly escaped several hazardous assignments during the war.
A last-minute change in his unit assignment meant he did not end up in the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines and a split of his unit into three parts left him out of the one that later sank with a torpedoed ship.
And even when he was in France and sent to Marseilles when the war was shifting to the Pacific, he was told he would be going to Japan, only to later find out the military wanted the trucks, but not the manpower, so he spent the rest of the war in the small town of Arles.
He recalls the signing ceremony to end the war against Germany. While the French delegation’s vehicle broke down and its members had to ride in on dusty American tanks, the German high officials had a shiny new Packard to take them home, he said.
“It was really a comic opera,” Stephenson said.
Married, with kids
At a Halloween carnival in 1939, he met Katherine Milner, a young math teacher from Albuquerque. They married a year later, had three sons and remained together until her death in 1986.
In the early years at their farm, they ran an egg business and she delivered the product to grocery stores around Santa Fe.
Around the same time, they sponsored displaced families from Poland, who lived in a casita on the farm, according to information put together by Roy Stephenson.
John Stephenson took early retirement at age 51 and the couple traveled the globe.
He also pursued a hobby in ceramics, using a kiln at New Vistas, a program for young people with disabilities. He started working with the youths in the swimming pool at Salvador Perez, then Katherine suggested giving them experience working on their farm.
That led to the evolution of the Santa Fe Community Farm as a charitable operation, becoming official in 1984. All that surplus produce was donated to food programs; John was one of the co-founders of Food for Santa Fe. The farm is worked by legions of volunteers, many of them locals, but many also coming from church programs and other organizations, often from Texas, the Stephensons said.
A photo on his wall shows John Stephenson, named one of the Thousand Points of Light, shaking hands with President Bill Clinton. Oprah Winfrey featured him and his farm on a two-minute segment on her program.
And he’s been honored in Santa Fe both as a “Living Treasure” and one of “Ten Who Made a Difference.” Besides his farm’s contributions to feeding the needy, he has done volunteer work with the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross and more.
Roy Stephenson described what he calls the “Golden Circle.”
Kitchen Angels gives garden waste to the farm, where it is aged as compost and spread on the fields.
Many of the fruits and vegetables grown in the fields end up back with Kitchen Angels, which, as part of its work delivering meals to homebound and elderly people, brings John Stephenson his dinner.
So it should be no surprise that he also received, in 2009, a lifetime achievement award from Sustainable Santa Fe.