A Life's Story

December 26, 2020

A light shining on others' lives

Allison Stephanson was a devoted wife and mother, a lifelong friend, a committed and trailblazing police officer and a champion athlete

By: Mike Sawatzky

Allison Stephanson’s life encompassed the everyday and extraordinary.

She was a devoted friend, wife, mother of two and a trailblazing Winnipeg police officer.

<p>SUPPLIED</p><p>Stephanson plays with the U of W Wesmen in a February 1986 game in Regina on the road to national finals. Stephanson had a career high of 19 kills that game en route to another national title.</p>

SUPPLIED

Stephanson plays with the U of W Wesmen in a February 1986 game in Regina on the road to national finals. Stephanson had a career high of 19 kills that game en route to another national title.

As an athlete in high school, Stephanson (née Smith) competed in a wide range of sports, but it was in university that she truly made her mark as a standout on some of the best volleyball squads Manitoba has ever produced.

Her death Feb. 5 at the age of 55, coming after a 20-month struggle with lung cancer, came as a heavy blow to those who knew her well — and she had a legion of friends at work and in her personal life.

"Allison was an incredibly authentic, grounded person who knew exactly what she wanted," says Carol Ploen-Hosegood, one of Allison’s closest friends, dating back to their high school days at Vincent Massey Collegiate.

"And I think her experience in the police force gave her incredible insight, really, into so many different facets of life. So, being able to talk to her, you knew it stayed with her... She wasn’t a gossiper. You knew your secrets were safe with her and hers were safe with me."

Brenda Westwood, a teammate on the provincial volleyball team at the 1983 Canada Winter Games and with four national championship squads at the University of Winnipeg that followed, says the friendships Stephanson formed were lasting.

"When Allison decided you were a forever friend, you were a forever friend and you were invited to everything and you couldn’t escape, even if you wanted to," says Westwood.

"She had friends from Grade 6 that were in her wedding party, whom her kids know to be like cousins. This group just kept on getting bigger but it was Allison who was the catalyst for it — she was the one that organized and she would decide, ‘Oh well, you’ll probably get along... so you guys are coming on this trip’ Allison was the organizer and really, the glue for a lot of these groups that she had."

An overflow gathering of about 500 attended Stephanson’s celebration of life at the Metropolitan Entertainment Centre on Feb. 15. Work and sports connections were out in force.

<p>SUPPLIED</p><p>Allison Stephanson receives a certificate of achievement from then-police chief Keith McCaskill. Stephanson began her career in the Winnipeg Police Service in the 1980s, retiring in 2014.</p>

SUPPLIED

Allison Stephanson receives a certificate of achievement from then-police chief Keith McCaskill. Stephanson began her career in the Winnipeg Police Service in the 1980s, retiring in 2014.

"If you want to stereotype, we were the jocks," says Ploen-Hosegood. "We had a really close group of friends we brought with us from junior high and we all melded and mixed. Our connection truly was both friendship and sports. What I wrote (for the funeral) was if love at first sight is a thing, so is friendship at first sight. From the first minute, I don’t think we ever fought. We just had 40 years of fun."

Stephanson’s husband Rob says before her illness, his wife was an indefatigable organizer of vacations for her family and closest friends.

The two, who both began their careers at the Winnipeg Police Service in the late 1980s, met in 1990.

Married two years later, he remembers how his wife expertly navigated the working world while also raising their two sons, Mitch and Brady. Both boys, now adults, are University of Manitoba engineering grads employed at Price Industries as design engineers.

"There were very few females on the job at the time and she was the only female working in the whole North End station amongst 130 men," Rob says of his future wife’s decision to become a police officer.

"And when the supervisors recognized good workers, male or female — but especially female because there’s very few of them — they got sought after right away."

Stephanson quickly advanced at the WPS while accumulating a wide range of experience; she was employed first in the intelligence unit before taking on plainclothes work with the drug squad, and then the surveillance unit.

Later in her career, she was promoted to human resources under three different ranks, her last as an inspector.

When she retired in 2014, Stephanson had earned the respect and admiration of her co-workers.

"She excelled at problem-solving; she was very smart, highly organized and a great communicator," says Supt. Liz Pilcher, a now-retired WPS colleague and friend.

"And she was gifted at manoeuvring through complex situations, politically complex... because at that point, if you’re in charge of human resources, you’re dealing with the executive a lot. But she always brought humour and light to situations that were difficult to deal with."

She displayed a quiet determination to regain her health after falling ill in the spring of 2018.

Returning from a trip to Hawaii with Ploen-Hosegood, Westwood and their spouses, an inner-ear infection turned out to be much more serious.

A tumour was found in her lung in June and, by September of that year, doctors found the cancer had metastasized to her brain.

At first, gamma knife radiosurgery appeared to be curtailing the disease but by December of 2019, a last-ditch four-part treatment plan didn’t advance beyond the first stage. Stephanson entered hospital for the final time on Jan. 27.

The disease seemed so inexplicable for someone who led such a healthy lifestyle.

"She never smoked, ever," says Rob, who retired from the WPS in 2019 and would have celebrated his 28th wedding anniversary with his wife in September.

"She didn’t work in a coal mine. She was never exposed to asbestos. She got lung cancer and it metastasized. Nobody can say why, where or whatever."

Pilcher admired her friend’s grit and fighting spirit to the end.

"(Allison and Rob) invited people in," says Pilcher. "They didn’t kind of keep it to themselves — they shared the hardship. But she never complained, you know. She was always really sort of upbeat about it, very hopeful. Up until the end she never complained, was always looking for the positive side of it, which you know you admire when somebody is going through a terminal illness. And I think up until the end she really believed that there was hope."

All these months later, Stephanson’s family and friends are still coming to grips with the loss.

"It’s one of those things — we don’t get to control our fate," says Ploen-Hosegood. "And I hold her dear in my heart. And I still talk to her many times when I’m out on walks in nature. She’s still my rock."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

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