Longtime Sandpoint resident Stephen Charles Drinkard, 77, died Saturday, Oct. 30 at Bonner General Health after weeks of fighting a breakthrough COVID pneumonia he contracted while hospitalized for a surgery in Coeur d’Alene. His wife, Susan, was by his side.
Born March 3, 1944 in Detroit, Mich., to Charles Blackburn Drinkard and Gladys Ann McBride Drinkard, he was raised in Orange County and then in Culver City, Calif., near MGM Studios. He and his sister, Kristin, and parents lived for many years in rundown hotels, primarily at The Culver Hotel, a one-time palace for the stars. By the time Stephen and his family moved there, it was beaten up and partially owned by a besotted Red Skelton. The manager gave his family the use of an extra room so that all four didn’t have to sleep in the same room. From his tiny triangular room, he would climb out onto the metal fire escape and from across the street the red pulse of the Learner’s Men’s Shop sign would color him in faint pink.
Stephen survived the gritty urban life by playing sports — baseball in the city league before lettering in high school basketball. He would admit he was a juvenile delinquent in high school, but he learned that, if you earned good grades, you were seldom held accountable.
In 1962 he began college at UCLA, where he became great at shooting pool before he settled into years of serious study. He earned a Master of Arts in English literature. His great affection for basketball grew during UCLA’s extraordinary run of national championships in the 1960s under coach John Wooden, with players such as Marques Johnson, Walt Hazzard and Lew Alcindor — who later took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and was an acquaintance of Stephen’s.
Six months away from completing his doctorate, he left to join Gary Shusett in running an experiential high school, Sherwood Oaks, where hugs prevailed; it was the ’60s. He kept in contact with many of the students he knew there and some became lifelong friends.
He smoked a pipe and wore corduroy with patches for decades because the professorial role fit him perfectly. He worked for many years as an instructor of English composition and literature at the University of Hawaii, before he left academia to work with his hands. He and his partner at the time bought property near Sacheen Lake near Newport, Wash., where he and friends built an octagon house in the woods. He made stained glass for a living; many of his pieces still hang in professional offices and homes in Spokane.
Seeking community after seven years in the woods, he moved to Sandpoint, where he taught Kindergarten at the North Idaho Learning Center. He always contended that the children grew up to have the same personality they had at age 5. It was there he met his future wife, Susan, who interviewed him for the Daily Bee because he was the first male Kindergarten teacher in Bonner County.
Stephen moved on to Rocky Mountain Academy, where he taught stained glass, great literature, Vietnam and World War II history, and much more. He enjoyed the preparation, research, implementation — every aspect of teaching. At RMA he met staff members Dave and Meghan Yeats and Ed Katz, who became close friends for the rest of his life. He was especially proud of former students Rob Gluck and Mac Young, and loved to challenge Gluck on his political leanings.
Always a teacher, Stephen taught at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene. He worked toward establishing the presence of North Idaho College in Sandpoint, even helping to build the walls in its first site downtown. He taught GED preparation there and said the reason students drop out of math is because they don’t know their multiplication tables and there is no way around learning them.
In 1996, Stephen earned a second master’s degree, this time in adult education, through the University of Idaho.
Susan and Stephen adopted a 14 year-old boy, Robert Jobe Drinkard, and cared for him for two years.
From 1999 through 2012 Stephen worked as the city of Sandpoint’s grant administrator, bringing the city $13 for every dollar they paid him during those years. He coordinated projects including downtown revitalization and started the urban forestry program. He spearheaded creation of the Sandpoint Urban Renewal Agency. He secured the funding, and managed projects for, the boardwalk at Sand Creek, the “Outstanding Trees of Sandpoint” book, the 150 trees on Fifth and downtown, the bioswales, the curb-outs, the public art archway of leaping fish at Main and First. He worked with the late Dr. Bob Carlson to find funding for the bike path to Dover, and much more.
He began the Bonner Community Housing Agency in 2006 because he wanted to foster more affordable housing in Sandpoint. He worked for the Idaho Department of Lands for many years as a part-time consultant to develop urban forestry programs in the small towns of North Idaho.
In the past two years he learned the intricacies of Medicare and became a volunteer Medicare advisor, using his skills to synopsize very complicated information for people turning 65. He served as president of the Syringa Heights Water District and worked on both of those volunteer positions until his final days.
Stephen’s last community effort after nine months in recovery from a quadruple bypass surgery last December, was on a fundraising team for the Panida Theater, where he helped author a large grant application.
Stephen was a nester. He hated to drive anywhere and preferred being at home working on projects big and small. He was a thorough researcher and would spend hours to find the best deal for the money. His pride and joy was his friends’ children and their successes as well as his two nephews, Colin and Daniel Pemp. He loved being called “Uncle Dude” by Danny and “Wise Elder” by Colin and thought they were golden. He treasured many evenings with very long-time friends Chris and Sandy Bessler, with whom he and Susan shared holidays, traveled to concerts and to Gonzaga Bulldogs games. One of the best experiences was attending the 2017 PK80 basketball tourney in Portland, Ore.
Stephen spent endless hours with his best friend, Ross Fulmer and his wife, Mary Armstrong of Sandpoint, solving engine, tree, car, tractor, and building problems, along with the political ailments of the world, which were the fault of the Republicans.
Stephen was a force. He had a bit of a rarified air and big energy. He was very opinionated and kept informed daily, even sending news of politics and updates on potential players for the Zags to his friends during the summertime, when no one else was interested.
He was an active member in the Gurdjieff Work in Sandpoint, first with Dennis Pence’s group and for the past six years under Jill Kahn’s leadership. He worked very hard on his spirituality, striving to keep an open channel to God by living in the present, residing in gratitude, and experiencing compassion for those suffering. He shared poems he loved with Susan frequently.
He also participated for two decades in the tai chi classes with Mark Evans, and he was a voracious reader.
Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Susan; his pups, Mercy and Otter, whom he lovingly called “dirt bags” and his beloved kitty, Beulah. More survivors are his sister, Kristin Linn Drinkard Oddy of Tucson, Az.; his sister-in-law, Barbara Pemp of Tucson; his niece, Jenna Sides of Tucson; his adopted son, Robert Drinkard of Sheridan, Wyo.; Joseph and LaTresa Pemp, in-laws of Bonners Ferry; and nephew Colin Pemp of Sandpoint; Rob and Brenda Pemp, in-laws of Hayden, and their children, Haley, Erika, and Kelton; Brenda Garrett, sister-in-law of Post Falls; father-in-law John Pemp and his wife Bobby of Post Falls; and nephew Daniel of Spokane. He was preceded in death by his nephew, Jonathan Pemp, in 2009.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 10 at the Lakeview Chapel in Sandpoint with a dinner following upstairs. Masks will be provided at the door for any who forget theirs.
Memorials to the Panida Theater in his name are welcomed and encouraged.
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