Albert Thorburn Stephenson’s commitment to community

Since this year is the centennial year for the City of Red Deer, there has been a great deal of attention paid to our civic leaders who have helped make our City the community that it is today.

Quite naturally, those getting the most attention have been our municipal politicians, particularly our mayors.

However, equally important have been our City staff, administrators and managers. One of the most important early figures was Albert Thorburn Stephenson, affectionately nicknamed ‘Stevie’ who served as the City Commissioner for more than a quarter of a century.

A.T. Stephenson was born on March 6, 1875.

He was educated in Orillia’s public schools, Portage la Prairie Collegiate and Regina Normal School (teachers’ college).

He was exceptionally bright. He was a provincial and national chess champion. He had aspirations of becoming a medical doctor.

However, in February 1900, he enlisted with the Lord Strathcona Horse and served in the South African (Boer) War.

While overseas, he came down with malaria, a malady from which he suffered for the rest of his life.

After the War, he moved to Red Deer to work as a surveyor with Major R.C. Laurie. However, he soon took a teaching position at Crossroads School and then one as principal at the Red Deer Public School.

After his marriage to Sarah Jenkins in December 1903, he went into the hardware business, partnering with A. H. Illsey. He also became very interested in municipal politics and was elected to the Red Deer Town Council in 1905.

Stephenson was a strong advocate of the commission form of government as a means of strengthening the town’s administration. He was successful in having Red Deer adopt the model in 1907.

The value of the reform quickly became evident. It turned out that the long-time secretary treasurer of the Town had been mishandling public funds. Because of all his expertise, Stephenson resigned from Council and assumed the position of Town Commissioner and Secretary-Treasurer, a job he was to hold until 1935.

Red Deer adopted the model where the mayor and the town commissioner made up the Commission, thereby ensuring that both the political and administrative sides of the Town had an equal say in the running of the municipality.

This model ensured that Red Deer did not have any significant municipal scandals for several decades.

In 1913, Mayor Francis Galbraith led the political push towards having Red Deer incorporated as a City, but it was A.T. Stephenson who carried out the crucial work of drafting the City Charter.

Over the succeeding years, Stephenson’s expertise was such that he was frequently consulted by the Department of Municipal Affairs for advice.

He successfully implemented the purchase of the Western General Electric by the City in 1926.

The acquisition of this utility allowed the City to cover all of its expenses while dramatically cutting taxes throughout the Great Depression. This gained Red Deer the international reputation as an ‘economic miracle’ among municipalities

Stephenson was also active as the long-time secretary-treasurer of the Red Deer Hospital, the first municipal hospital district in Alberta. He was twice president of the Alberta Hospitals Association and a member of the Alberta Taxation Commission.

He was a very active Mason and was a charter member of the Red Deer Rotary Club and the Legion.

Despite his health problems, he was an avid sportsman, being an excellent cricketer and golfer. He loved fishing and was a crack trap shooter with the Red Deer Gun Club.

Ongoing bouts of malaria and the consequences of a stroke forced A.T. Stephenson to retire in 1935. Despite the onset of paralysis, he was determined to fight back.

Within two years, he had virtually recovered. Unfortunately, a second stroke in the fall of 1945 proved more severe. He passed away on April 21, 1946.