It was going to be a humdinger of a Comptche party in late June. The whole town was invited to show up at the community hall, family would be arriving, all to celebrate Buddy Stenback’s 90th birthday in style. Only problem? A nasty pandemic got in the way and cancelled the party.
Stenback was pretty easy about it, knowing that sometime in the future there will be a belated gathering and celebration. He joined this interviewer on his big day to sit at a shaded picnic table, six feet apart, in Comptche’s Firehouse Park and talk about 32,850 days (give or take a few). A note to readers: the Tahja and Stenback families have been friends for over 100 years in Comptche. Buddy actually nicknamed my son Matti, the Finnish language diminutive of his given name Matthew, when he was a few days old. That was 42 years ago, and the kid is still called Matti.
You can’t get any more Finnish than Buddy. He had his DNA tested and he’s 97% Finnish, but he’ll stress that’s Finnish-American. His grandparents came from Finland but raised their kids to be American and proud of it. Finnish was his childhood home language but his big sister Dee (Lemos) began teaching him English before he entered Comptche School in the mid-1930’s.
Like many other immigrant sagas, his ancestors came to Comptche in 1906 because there were relatives working here in Peterson’s Hotel, the old stage stop, just east of the Comptche Corners, and promised employment. His mother’s people were Juntilla’s and his family home today is in an enclave the locals call “Juntillaville” in downtown Comptche behind the old school. Family men worked in the timber industry and the wives took care of the kids and the homestead. Stenback had siblings including Dee, Shirley, and brother Bill.
Comptche wasn’t a bad place to be growing up during the Great Depression. There was beef, pork, chicken, rabbits, and milk at home. The streams offered salmon and the forests venison and there were fruit trees and honey. He said his diet was typical Finnish-American with lots of meat and potatoes and traditional baked goods. The chore he disliked the most as a kid was bringing in firewood. To this day almost every child growing up in Comptche would tell you the same thing.
Going to Mendocino was something that happened once a month if you were lucky. He said the kids would follow their parents everyplace hoping for a treat. He attended Comptche School until 8th grade and was often the only boy surrounded by a dozen girls. Living so close to school his mom demanded he come home for lunch and he always missed noon time recess.
In 1945 at Mendocino High he played basketball and baseball and had a Model T Ford for transportation. He referred to it as the “skeleton” model since it had a frame and running gear but not much else. He worked in the woods in the summertime hauling split stuff from the logging landing to the county road and loved it because he got to drive a 1923 Chevy truck when he was in his teens.
After graduating high school, he went to Santa Rosa Junior College and developed an interest in surveying. He worked for Don Philbrick and Frank Tunzi running a yards but found surveying was a safer occupation than working in the woods and pursued it for 40 years. At age 26 he met Pat Voepel at a dance and married her a few years later. They had two kids, Shelley and Alan, and he’s got five grandkids and isn’t really sure how many great-grandchildren but jokingly thinks it’s at least a dozen.
Stenback remembers the Grange Hall, now the community hall, as the social center of town. Dances, gatherings, volunteer fire department fundraisers, potlucks, anniversaries, everything happened at the hall. Today he never misses a gathering there. His hobby is photography and he proudly wears a baseball cap with “Comptche Paparazzi” embroidered on it and he photographs folks and posts pictures to Facebook.
With itchy feet Buddy has managed to wander around the world and has been to Finland, China, Tahiti, the Galapagos, Alaska, and a thousand miles up the Amazon River. Raising kids his family liked to ski and he fondly remembers winter trips to the Sierra’s for sport. “Life’s always treated me good,” he states.
When asked if he had any words of wisdom after 90 years he said, “Be Honest,” a simple good goal for a life well lived. He loves Comptche and wouldn’t want to live anyplace else. With a chuckle he ended the interview talking about Chivarees. This was an old custom on the coast to celebrate a wedding. On their wedding night, or soon thereafter, in the dark of night, a hullabaloo would start just outside the newlywed’s bedroom window. A mock serenade featured gunshots, horns, people pounding on pots and pans, yelling, screaming, and laughter disrupting the night. A party would ensue with liquid libations and food brought along to welcome the folks to married life in Comptche.
The town of Comptche promises there will be one heck of a belated birthday party for Buddy Stenback when social gatherings can resume. Instead of gifts Buddy Stenback suggests a donation to the Comptche Volunteer Fire Department where he was once fire chief.