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Obituary: S.T. (Tom) Stevens

Professional engineer and city leader who served on Plan Commission for over 34 years dies at age 89.

Editor's Note: This obituary was provided to Patch by Randle-Dable-Brisk Funeral, Cremation and Preplanning Services.

Samuel Thomas “Tom” Stevens Jr., 89, once designated by the Freeman “the Cal Ripken of city government” in Waukesha, died Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012 at Avalon Square from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

A professional engineer who spent his entire career with Wisconsin Bell Telephone Company, he held volunteer positions with the Waukesha Park and Recreation Board and the City Plan Commission for more than 34 consecutive years, serving with mayors Owens, Eshman, Vrakas, LaPorte, Keenan, and Opel.

Stevens saw the boundaries of Waukesha expand enormously and its population grow by 83 percent during his tenure.  He was instrumental in formulating the progressive land use policies that helped the city achieve international recognition as one of the “Best Places to Live” in the United States.

As board member and then chairman of the Park Rec Board, he worked to conceive and implement a city ordinance that required developers to dedicate a portion of new residential tracts to park use, ensuring that the city’s park system would grow proportionately with its population and create additional facilities easily accessible to all new residents.  “What we have here is as good as anywhere,” he proudly told the Freeman on his retirement from the Park and Rec Board in 1990.

At Wisconsin Bell, Stevens was effectively Ma Bell’s real estate developer in Wisconsin, responsible for the development, construction and remodeling of all Bell telephone buildings and communications towers in the entire state.  As a result he traveled extensively, working through local land use requirements, hiring architects and construction firms to build telephone company facilities, and solving the inevitable problems that arose during the process.  This led to his deep understanding of developers’ points of view and an appreciation for the complexities they faced. 

While serving on the two city agencies dealing most closely with land use issues, Stevens combined his professional expertise with his strong sense of public interest and affection for Waukesha, “the nicest place I can think of to live in,” as he told the Freeman on his retirement from the Plan Commission in 1996.  Successor Park Rec Board chairman Tom Vitale told the Freeman, “I think the greatest quality he lends to the city of Waukesha is his love of this city.  He is Waukesha-oriented and can see the big picture of Waukesha.”  Personal friend and former Mayor Paul Vrakas described Stevens as knowledgeable, honest and straight-forward:  “Those are the qualities that are really important when you’re making decisions on a board like this.”

He loved applying his professional skills and experience to Waukesha’s benefit during its high growth years -  whether counseling developers on what would or would not succeed, personally inspecting new park facilities, helping his wife Bettie convert the under-utilized basement of the First Presbyterian Church to The Caring Place Adult Day Care facility, or working through the technical problems of growth and development in the city.  He once called the Albanese family to point out that although neither a restaurant nor a tavern was permissible at their site on Bluemond Road, a “roadhouse” would be perfectly legal; so “Albanese’s Roadhouse” it was, as it is today.

Stevens was born Oct. 9, 1922, in Indianapolis to Samuel Thomas Stevens, Sr. and Mildred Currens Stevens.  He attended grammar and junior high school in Milwaukee, and then Madison East High School for four years before graduating in 1941.  During World War II he served in the Signal Headquarters Company for the US Army Air Forces (prior to the creation of the US Air Force), establishing forward airfield communications for the Eighth Fighter Command as US forces captured Pacific islands in the battles of Luzon, New Guinea, Eastern Mandates, Bismarck Archipelago, Western Pacific, and the liberation of the Philippines.  He attended the University of Wisconsin before beginning a 40-year career at Wisconsin Bell.

Stevens moved his family to Waukesha in 1956 and joined the First Presbyterian Church, which he later served as a Trustee, Elder of the Session and church school teacher.  He delivered Meals on Wheels to mobility-impaired clients for many years after that program was launched locally by his wife Bettie and others from their church.  He was active in the Waukesha Civic Theater and Early Risers of the Kiwanis Club.

His love for the City of Waukesha was surpassed only by his love for his large and extended family, for whom he was the proud patriarch even in his final years of failing health.  He is survived by his wife of 63 years Palma Willgrubs (“Bettie”) Stevens and by six children, their spouses, and eleven grandchildren: Gary and Kay Stevens of Chevy Chase, Maryland and their sons Ben, Chris and Samuel T. Stevens, III; Dennis and Sharon Stevens of Waukesha and their children Sean, Stewart and Sarah Stevens Wyne; Tracy and Terri Stevens of Waukesha; Jan Stevens Larson and Brad Larson of Maple Valley, Washington and their son Jay; Gene and Katie Stevens of Oconomowoc and their sons Michael and David; and Jill Stevens West and Kevin West of Loveland, Colorado and their children Kate and US Marine LCpl. Thomas West.  He is also survived by his sister-in-law Ruth Ann Unseth of Drummond, Wisconsin, his brother-in-law George Willgrubs of Palermo, North Dakota, six great grandchildren and many friends throughout the State of Wisconsin.

The Stevens family wishes to extend special recognition and gratitude to the extraordinary staff of Avalon Square and the dedicated professionals at Compassionate Care Hospice for their support and excellent care.

A memorial service will be held at the First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha, 810 N. East Avenue, on Saturday, Jan. 21 at 2 p.m.  The family will welcome guests during visitation at the church between noon and 2 p.m. prior to the service and at a brief reception at the church following the service.  In lieu of followers, memorial donations can be made in Mr. Stevens’s name to Avalon Square, 222 Park Place, Waukesha, WI 53186, to the First Presbyterian Church, or to the nonprofit organization of the donor’s choice.

For further information, please call at 262-547-4035 or go to www.waukeshafunerals.com to leave the family an online tribute message.

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