Olive Lee Stephens, the former longtime mayor of Shady Shores, died Monday after suffering a stroke last week. She was 101.
Stephens served on the Shady Shores Town Council from 1963 to 1973 and as the town’s mayor from 1973 to 2011. During her tenure, Shady Shores, population 2,800, grew from being a weekend camping and fishing spot on Lewisville Lake to an incorporated city with public services.
Her son, Cecil Carter, said being raised by Stephens was “an amazing experience.”
“She was a real force of nature,” Carter said. “Even as a young person, she had leadership ability.”
She was born Aug. 20, 1916, in Clayton and grew up in Panola County in deep East Texas. Her father gave her some land to do with as she pleased as a young teen and she farmed enough cotton to make a full bale, Carter said. Her family later moved to Marshall so she could attend high school.
In 1956, she and her husband, Fred Stephens, moved to Shady Shores. The couple opened a general store to serve the weekend visitors.
In 1963, the new mayor of Shady Shores asked Fred Stephens to serve on the Town Council. Olive Stephens volunteered instead. She served as a council member for 10 years as five different men served as mayor.
During a meeting at the Stephens’ store in 1964, residents passed the hat to raise money needed to pave the town’s first street. They raised $1,300 that night and a tradition began. Residents avoided property taxes for decades by holding pancake breakfasts and going door to door to solicit money to pay for local needs, including the town's share of running the Lake Cities Fire Department.
She was first elected mayor in 1973.
Longtime Shady Shores resident Tom Spencer said Stephens enjoyed people and knew what was going on, both in town and in Denton County.
“She enjoyed keeping up,” Spencer said. “She was so well-versed and [public service] gave a purpose for her life.”
But no one dared think she was politically naive, he added.
“She could play hardball; and she had no trouble running the show in the way that she wanted to run it,” Spencer said. “She never expressed any malice, but she understood how people acted and why they did what they did. She often made comments on what motivated other politicians.”
For a time, Carter’s wife, Polly Carter, served on the Town Council when his mother was mayor.
“Sunday afternoon dinners were testy,” Cecil Carter said. “[My mother] was very strong-willed.”
As mayor, Stephens helped sign up enough customers to bring natural gas service to town. She also persuaded a reluctant community to sign up for water and sewer services. The town adopted its first building codes and brought in trash service. Officials numbered houses, named streets and established zoning that remains almost exclusively residential. She helped co-found the first public library with Lake Dallas, Corinth and Hickory Creek.
On weekends with good weather, Stephens would get as much as 5 tons of asphalt delivered and called volunteers to help fill potholes. Famously, she filled many potholes herself.
The demand for city services increased in the 1990s, and the town’s long run of paying for services by passing the hat and holding pancake breakfasts came to an end. Stephens helped that transition, too, and residents paid their first property tax in 2000. The rate remains among the lowest in the county, currently about 31 cents per $100 valuation.
"She really was a pioneer in local Texas government," said Mayor Pro Tem Paula Woolworth. "We are losing a legend today."
Stephens was there when volunteers built the first Town Hall out of concrete blocks in 1973. She was still there when that building was razed in 2008 to make room for the current Town Hall.
In 2008, Denton ISD named an elementary school in her honor. Two other public facilities are named for her in Shady Shores: Olive's Branch, a street, and Olive's Garden, a small park that was moved from Fritz Lane to the Town Hall grounds in 2016. The Town Council also declared her birthday, Aug. 20, Olive Stephens Day in Shady Shores.
Stephens retired from full-time public service in 2011, at the age of 94. She continued to serve two more years on the Denco 9-1-1 board of directors, a group she helped establish and had served continuously since 1989.
She also served on the boards of the Denton County Historical Commission and the Denton County chapter of the American Cancer Society.
Stephens is survived by her daughter, Jean McBride, of Weatherford; her son, Cecil Carter, and daughter-in-law, Polly Carter, of Shady Shores; seven grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren.
The funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at Denton Funeral Home, 120 S. Carroll Blvd. in Denton. Visitation begins at 9 a.m.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the American Cancer Society or another charity.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.
What She Said
Here are some memorable quotes Olive Stephens gave to the Denton Record-Chronicle over the years.
On her political status:
"This is a one-horse town, and I'm that horse." — April 2005
On change and compromise:
"Your idea on something is as important to you as my idea is to me. We have to work together; there has to be give and take on those things." — February 2011
On political survival:
"You need to try to work with the citizens — that is key." — February 2011
On life in Shady Shores:
"A lot of people move here from Corinth and Hickory Creek, in part because of the taxes, but also for the size of the lots. There's a place for the kids to play and a place to park the boat. I think that's what's attractive about us." — February 2011
On how to live to 100 years old:
“I didn’t drink or smoke. Eat what you want and have no pain. I enjoyed peas with cornbread and marshmallows.” — August 2016