Third generation to run Woodfords Auto
R-C Alpine Bureau
He was out in the middle of the night in a blizzard, as usual. Bobby Stephens was the tow-truck driver going to rescue someone stranded in the storm, but this time it was different. He hurriedly radioed his wife Marge “The engine is on fire and the whole front of the truck is engulfed in flames!” Marge headed to the scene, in such a rush she didn’t even put on her shoes. When she got there, standing barefoot in the blinding snow, she saw that her quick-thinking husband Bobby had driven the tow-truck into a huge snowbank to put out the fire. A gas leak had gotten on the exhaust but a real disaster was averted: Bobby was safe. They had a big tow-truck to repair but, as with most things, they could do it themselves.
Bobby is a self-starter, and never much liked working for somebody else. Bobby and Marge Stephens started Woodfords Auto out of their home in 1977, after moving to Woodfords four years before. Except for a period of a year and a half when Bobby worked for an auto repair at the Lake, they have run the family business continuously since that time.
Bobby was born in Porterville, California and Marge was born in Twin Falls, Idaho. Both their families moved to Tahoe when they were children and they met in grammar school. They were married after they graduated from South Tahoe High School. That was 56 years ago this September. In the early days, they did recoveries all around Lake Tahoe too.
The family includes son Rick who is the current Alpine County Sheriff, and daughter Cami. Rick worked at Woodfords Auto before he moved over Highway 4 to Bear Valley. Cami attended Douglas High School, worked at Grover’s Hot Springs, and was active in 4-H in the valley. She was walking her pig one day when George Chavez pulled up beside her in his truck. He and his family had just moved from Los Angeles, and a girl walking her pig was something out of the ordinary for him. He inched along in his truck, asking her questions all the way to her house.
George and Cami were married in June of 1982 with the Rev. Wiedenmeyer presiding. The nuptials were held at the little white house that would later become the Alpine Christian Community Church. The legendary Alpine Trio played at their reception. Their four children are Rosemarie, Stephanie, Tyler, and Nicole. Their four grandchildren include twin girls.
They left the area briefly to attend college in Modesto. George studied drafting and Cami studied accounting. George got a job as a drafter upon their return to Alpine, but also worked part-time in the family towing business starting in 1984. Cami came back and got a job working for Alpine County. A close family, they all live near each other in Woodfords.
The old Cal-Trans yard came up for rent around 1982, and Bobby and Marge continued their business there, purchasing it from the county ten years later. It had no insulation and was ice cold in the winter, so they put in a little wood stove. Back then, the fire engines were kept in the extra bays. Bobby became a member of the Search and Rescue team and a volunteer firefighter. “I was out on all of the calls anyway!” Bobby explained. Marge stayed home and manned the phones, another round-the-clock job. Often they would all go out and help on calls. Cami remembers running the cables over a cliff to pull up a speed boat when it crashed.
In November of 1983 Bobby and Marge were hit head-on by a drunk driver, and experienced the trauma of a bad accident from the other side of the tow-truck. Since they are a steadfast and faithful family, they used this event to deepen their already compassionate natures. Many people have worked for Woodfords Auto over the years, including Arnie Rakow, Wes Barber, Todd Branscombe, and Josh Kelly, to name just a few.
The hand-held radios have always been unreliable in the mountains and canyons of Alpine County. Someone had to be next to a phone and ready to go out. Looking back on all the responses they have made, Bobby comments “For some reason, it always seemed to be snowing!” The worst calls, of course, are the fatalities. This is especially true if it was someone they knew. The night Caren Tognetti and Leslie Price were killed is seared into their memories. George says that it is the innocent children who are heart-breaking to him. They are passengers who can do nothing when their care-takers drive into avalanche zones, or enter our mountainous highways without the proper preparation.
Just as George took the reins from Bobby, George and Cami’s son Tyler will officially start running Woodfords Auto this September. Tyler will be the third generation of the family providing service to our community: willing to be on call 24 hours a day, going out in frigid temperatures at unusual hours to hook up the big chains and pull someone out of a tight spot.
Tyler remembers being about 5-6 years old and riding in the middle seat of the tow truck. It wasn’t so much that he was asked to go. “It was more like I was forced!” he said with a laugh. But by the time he was 16 he was down working at the shop on his jeep and street bike. The family business was already a big part of who he was. He went to Reno to complete his Firefighter I studies, then came straight back to Alpine.
His most memorable call was when they were trying to pull an old Four Runner up the side of a steep embankment. It took thousands of feet of cable, and after they secured it to the vehicle they hiked back up the slope. Just as they were nearing the top, the heavy spool slipped and rolled all the way back down. This happened twice more, and they ended up leaving one of the spools down at the bottom of the hill.
We can live without a lot of things most people are accustomed to having up here in Alpine, but we can’t do without Woodfords Auto. Over the years they have towed my family’s Bronco through snowdrifts, and all of our other vehicles too many times to count. We were always so thankful and happy to see the bright yellow trucks pulling up. Then we knew everything was going to be alright, we were safe, and would soon be home. The good people at Woodfords Auto would answer any questions with knowledge and kindness, giving pointers to my two teenaged sons when they were working on their own first cars. Back in the days when they did repair work, you could count on them to make sure your vehicle was running properly. Woodfords Auto was the place to be. It was the ex-facto center of town, the place everyone went to catch up on the latest news and visit. That hasn’t changed.