In the Line of Duty: William Stephens

The resting place of William Stephens, Calvary Cemetery, Altoona

Altoona’s Calvary Cemetery had a much different look to it when I entered it just days after Memorial Day. Unlike the previous visits, this time the cemetery was decorated by flags marking the graves of those who served our country. Before visiting the graves that brought me back to these sacred grounds, I detoured to the grave of John Hickman, a Medal of Honor recipient who rests within the borders of the cemetery. Note: more about John Hickman can be found here: John Hickman.

Once I finished paying my respects to the soldier, I turned my attention to a man who was buried a short distance away. From Hickman’s grave, I could see a fancy-looking “S” at the top of a nearby stone. As I walked over to it, I could see that it marked the resting place of a police officer who was killed during a traffic accident in 1920.

Patrolman William L. Stephens was born in Loretto, Cambria County on December 26, 1862, the son of Susan Cox. As a young man, he moved to Altoona where he worked as a carpenter until he joined the Altoona police force on April 6, 1893. Patrolman Stephens was described as being well-liked by those who knew him.

On the evening of January 5, 1920, Patrolman Stephens’ watch came to an end due to a tragic accident that occurred at 6:30 – only half an hour after the start of his shift. That cold evening, Stephens was directing traffic at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and Seventh Street. A Woolis delivery truck – Woolis was an Altoona grocery store – was traveling east on Eighth Avenue when Mr. Stephens motioned for the truck, driven by James Panagoplos, to proceed through the intersection.

At the same time, a car driven by J.H. Keefer was traveling on Seventh Street, nearing Eighth Avenue. Keefer believed Patrolman Stephens was motioning for him to proceed through the intersection. The car driven by Keefer was traveling fast, as he had accelerated to go up the hill approaching the intersection.

Unfortunately, both vehicles entered the intersection at the same time.

As Stephens stepped from the curb, the vehicle driven by Keefer struck the rear of the Woolis truck, causing the delivery truck to spin around. The lower leg of Patrolman Stephens was pinned between the Woolis truck and the curb. Stephens fell backward, fracturing his neck when his head struck the pavement.

Authorities were notified and soon police and an ambulance were on their way to the tragic accident. Those at the scene moved Stephens to the backroom of the barber shop, which was at the intersection, to keep him out of the cold while they waited for help.

Sadly, help came too late – Patrolman William Stephens passed while being taken to the hospital.

William Stephens had served on the Altoona police force for three months shy of twenty-seven years and was survived by his wife, six children, and six grandchildren. The Altoona Tribune noted Stephens was well-liked by all who knew him and enjoyed his job, having not missed a day of work in more than five years.

I finished paying my respects to Patrolman William L. Stephens, remembering how the community mourned at the loss of one of their own, who had dedicated his life to the Altoona police force.

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