Tourism leader, POW defender Stephens dies

ANCHORAGE — Stan Stephens, an Alaska tourism leader whose passion for Prince William Sound took new form after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, died Saturday, his family said. He was 78.


His family said he succumbed to a rare disease, amyloidosis, in which a buildup of proteins damaged his heart and caused shooting nerve pain in his limbs. He had been struggling with it for years.

His Stan Stephens Charters, which now operates as Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises, carried hundreds of thousands of tourists into Prince William Sound over the years to see calving glaciers and surfacing whales.

After the 1989 spill, Stephens publicly declared he would devote the rest of his life to making sure the Sound was protected. He was an environmental steward but not an in-your-face radical. Instead, he worked with the oil industry to improve practices and protect the natural beauty, his daughter, Colleen Stephens, said Monday.

“His dream was to share the Sound with folks around the world. Forever,” Colleen Stephens, now president of the company, said.

He was a founding member and former president of the watchdog group, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, which worked to ensure the safe shipment of oil. Oil industry executives embraced him, too.

“I worked with and respected Stan enormously for many years, and share his vision for sustaining the unique ecosystem of Prince William Sound,” Tom Barrett, president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., said in an emailed statement. “I will miss, and Alaska will miss, his leadership.”

Stephens also stood out as a leader in various travel and tourism groups and was a charter member of the Alaska Travel Industry Association created in 2000. He pushed legislators hard for money to market Alaska’s wonders, his daughter said. Feature stories described his old salt charm.

Stephens was born in Perham, Minn., in Otter Tail County. He came to Alaska in 1961 as a 26-year-old. He camped on vacant land near North Pole then bought the property and built a home there, his family said. He married Mary Helen in 1964, and they raised their three daughters in North Pole. The couple started a sport fishing charter business in 1971 that evolved into the family-run sightseeing company that continues on.

“He never saw people working for him,” Colleen Stephens said. “He saw people working with him.”

His business philosophy was simple, his daughter said. Be honest, believe in people and follow through. Colleen Stephens was speaking on her cellphone, with her mother by her side, who urged her to mention how he accepted handshakes for business deals.

Stephens trusted people to do the right thing and usually they did. “You didn’t dare goof it up,” Colleen Stephens said.

The family sold the business to Cook Inlet Region Inc. in 1997 and continued to run it. Five years later, CIRI decided to close the Valdez operation. The family took three days to decide to reopen its own sightseeing business again.

Though he didn’t feel well at the end, Stephens wasn’t willing to sit around.

On Sept. 14, a week before he died and at the tail end of the 2013 tourist season, he walked down to the harbor and took one of the family boat tours to Columbia Glacier. His wife and Colleen went along, too.

“It was just a nice family day on the water,” Colleen Stephens said. A happy, last time at sea for an old boat captain.

Stephens is survived by his wife of nearly 49 years, Mary Helen, daughters Carrie Nash and family of Fairbanks, Jenna Stephens and family of Seattle, and Colleen Stephens and family of Valdez.

The family and friends are planning celebrations in Valdez at 4:15 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Valdez Civic Center following dedication of the Stan Stephens Harbor Plaza, in Fairbanks Oct. 18 and in Anchorage Oct. 19. Details of the latter two will be announced later.


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