For countless visitors to the Hockaday Museum of Art in recent years, as well as museum staff, Bob Stephens has been the smiling face of the Kalispell institution: its greeter, its tireless advocate, its membership guru.
Hockaday Executive Director Alyssa Cordova said children in particular have a special affinity for Stephens, a kinship that goes both ways. He likes to dish out lollipops; they like to deliver him handmade art projects.
So when Stephens, a 79-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, announced in February that his heart and lung complications had progressed, the news rippled deeply through the greater Hockaday community. Due to his health, Stephens has been absent at the museum, even as it gradually opens to visitors.
“Before everything shut down because of COVID-19, everyone was coming in and asking, ‘Where’s Bob? How’s he doing?’” Cordova said. “He’s just been an integral part of what we do here on a daily basis.”
“He really had a friendship with our visitors,” she added. “He just gave 110% of himself to the museum and made it feel like home to the visitors. They all know and love Bob. It’s been really sad for the public and myself and the staff to lose his presence.”
Still, despite not coming into the museum, and undeterred by his health condition, Stephens has been working diligently from home as he continues performing his job as visitor and membership manager. Cordova said Stephens, in only a few years on staff, has revived the gift shop, increased member revenue by 30% and made numerous other contributions to the museum.
One major task Stephens has accomplished in recent months is helping facilitate two donations totaling $2,000 from the Kalispell Elks Lodge #725. One donation supports the Hockaday’s educational programs for students at local schools to attend the museum and its activities. The second donation supports the Blue Star Program, which allows veterans, active military members and their families to attend the museum and participate in its events for free from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Stephens’ wife Candy, who was named Hockaday’s volunteer of the year for 2019, said it was “heart-wrenching” for her husband to leave the museum once he fell ill.
“He would love to still be there if he possibly could,” she said.
But Candy said the Air Force veteran has found gratification in knowing the generous Elks donations will benefit local students and veterans. Stephens’ three children are also veterans, while a grandson is an active military member and another grandson is joining.
“We’re pretty military around our family,” Candy said.
At a May 22 ceremony to present the Elks Lodge donations, Candy showed up with a 50-page spreadsheet that Bob had created to identify and organize potential sponsor businesses for upcoming events.
“It’s just incredible,” Cordova said. “He’s bedridden right now and he’s still working on this project. His dedication is unparalleled. I’ve never encountered an employee like him in my time working in this industry. He’s amazing.”
The Hockaday has been open to the public since May 16, with limited hours of Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. for the general public, and Thursday from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. for seniors only. For more information, visit hockadaymuseum.org.