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Legendary Locals of Lakewood

Lakewood historians uncover greats

Photo credit: Andrew Byrd

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One of the most beautiful things about studying history is finding new discoveries along familiar and well-traveled paths. It is that discovery process that makes history so rich and vibrant. Even better: having these terrific discoveries right in one's own backyard.

This is especially true for local authors Steve Dunkelberger and Walter Neary. In 2005, the duo co-authored the definitive and local bestselling book, Images of America: Lakewood, which highlights the poignant and fascinating history of the city. The authors are back with their follow-up book about the people who influenced and shaped the city of Lakewood and region into what it is today. Their newly released book, Legendary Locals of Lakewood, not only offers the reader a fascinating glimpse into the characters of the past, but also uncovers some surprises and hidden gems along the way.

"I was surprised on the level of ‘hidden heroes' that time has largely forgotten that we were able to stumble across during our research," said co-author Dunkelberger. "Everyone knows the pioneers and the big-named business owners like Flett, Clapp and Leschi, but there were a host of people who helped the early days of Lakewood that don't have monuments or plaques about them."

While Dunkelberger worked to uncover stories and details, he discovered many people who quietly helped weave the community fabric of the region; however, there were a couple of stories that really stood out and captured his imagination on a personal level.

"The story of the Disc Golf Course is a great example of Lakewood's character of volunteerism, so I would have to say that one stands out for me," Dunkelberger said. "But the story of Al Stearns being a lifelong volunteer who was tragically struggling with inner demons was also interesting. The Rotary history book didn't shy away from the celebrations and the struggles involving him, so it is refreshing to have that resource that tells it like it was, warts and all."

Of course, no study of history would be complete without some unusual surprises.

And Dunkelberger definitely encountered those.

"Jelly Roll Morton has an interesting Lakewood connection by playing in a brothel during his early jazz career," said Dunkelberger. "We stepped lightly on the whole issue, but it was fascinating to research.

"The story of JZ Knight having her first vision of Ramtha in the produce section of the Lakewood Safeway is also kind of funny."

And while uncovering the famous, infamous, heroic and curious of yesteryear is intriguing, history pundits and history lovers typically enjoy looking at the present day and putting together the historic pieces of the puzzle. Where does Dunkelberger see Lakewood today? What is it about Lakewood's past legends and historical spirit that carried through to modern times?

"I think the city has come a long way since incorporation, let alone since the first book came out," said Dunkelberger. "Crime is down. Property values are up. Storefronts are filled. But that change hasn't come at the cost of the character of the city. Lakewood is still a collection of communities that band together for larger issues. Neighbors aren't afraid to get involved if the change has benefits to their streets. I think that will continue since it seems to be in Lakewood's DNA.

"Lakewood's ‘modern character' of making things happen through volunteerism is not new. The early pioneers set up the framework of the city and set the foundation of local problem solving rather than waiting for someone else to make things better."

Want to learn more Legendary Locals of Lakewood is now available at local bookstores and online.

Lakewood Locals Speak

  • THURSDAY, AUG. 12: Steve Dunkelberger and Walter Neary share slides of photos about the city and about the book, 7 p.m., Lakewood Library, 6300 Wildaire Road SW, Lakewood
  • THURSDAY, SEPT. 16: Steve Dunkelberger and Walter Neary have a candid conversation about whether there's a more systematic way to put a third book together, 7 p.m., Lakewood Historical Society gathering at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, 10630 Gravelly Lake Dr. SW, Lakewood
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