By Karson Petty
Community News Service
On a chilly evening in a pueblo outside of Madrid, Spain, villagers crowded into a one-room apartment to sing and dance flamenco with an American family.
With stomachs full of authentic Spanish cuisine, bodies warmed by a charcoal brazier, and hearts warmed by good company, they could forget their poverty under the reign of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
A 14-year-old Steven Shepard, in 1969, couldn’t believe a family of seven crammed into a sparse apartment could keep on smiling.
His family had moved into a hacienda in a Madrid suburb after his father, who was a petroleum geologist, got assigned to work in Spain.
Two decades later Shepard would end up raising a family of his own in Williston.
A childhood on the move
Shepard recalls that he moved 16 times, following the oil across the American Southwest, before ending up in Madrid.
“There were times when the movers came and brought in all the boxes, my mom started opening the boxes, and my dad called and said, ‘Don’t open anything, we’re moving again’,” he said.
He spent his high school years attending the American School of Madrid, a monumental change from his former hometown of Midland, Texas.
He learned that it was customary for well-off families living in big houses to employ a maid. After Shepard’s family had formed a relationship with theirs, she invited them to her house for dinner.
After young Shepard had eaten the best food he had ever had and experienced the impromptu flamenco dancing, he realized something that completely changed his worldview.
“I came to realize that the measure of a person is not how much money they make,” he said. “The measure of a person is the impact they have on others.”
A career of international travel and storytelling
His formative years in Madrid also kindled a lifetime passion for travel.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Shepard visited between 33 and 55 countries a year, taking as few as two weeks off. Over the last 40 years he’s given thousands of information, technology, and communications talks to businesses and organizations in over 100 countries.
“I’ve spoken in sports stadiums, I’ve given talks in movie theaters, I’ve given talks on buses and airplanes,” he said. “I’ve given talks in all kinds of places, which makes it that much more fun along the way.”
Shepard’s speech material comes from his 20-plus-year background in the telecommunications industry, but what drives him is his deep passion for storytelling.
He wrote his first story in 1965 when he was 10 years old. It was based on the character Doc Savage from the comic book series of the same name in the 1940s. He’s been writing and telling stories ever since.
Storytelling is not just a passion for Shepard. “It suffuses everything I do,” he said.
Shepard received a master’s degree in International Business from Saint Mary’s College of California in 1986. He was also writing his first book at the time, about transitioning back to American culture after living abroad.
A home base in Vermont
When he got the opportunity to move from California to Vermont in 1991, storytelling was still his driving force.
He accepted a job as a business technology consultant for Hill Associates and moved to Williston with his wife Sabine, whom he married in 1981, and their two children.
They settled in Williston for practical reasons at the time.
Shepard said it was a nice neighborhood, the schools were good, it seemed like a great place to raise his children and to get away from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco.
He worked at Hill Associates until 2000, when the travel bug got the best of him. He founded his own communications company, Shepard Communications Group LLC, and ushered in the height of his international career.
He also founded his company to help bring technology to third-world countries.
“I’ve done a lot of work in places like Africa and Southeast Asia and Latin America, where organizations, whether they’re government or private, are bringing technology to bear on their own countries for the very first time,” said Shepard.
The work is hugely rewarding for Shepard, and it proves to him that understanding culture, language, geography, history, are every bit as important in the world of business as understanding economics and finance.
Along the way, he received his Ph.D. in Sociology of Technology from the Da Vinci Institute in South Africa.
Every time Shepard came back from business abroad, he returned to Williston. The town became not just a town for Shepard, but a permanent home.
“I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived in Vermont,” he said, “Williston is a wonderful place for me to come back to when I’m traveling all the time.”
Shepard told a story of a time when he and his wife went to a performance at the Flynn Theater in Burlington, where they had a true glimpse of Vermont life.
“Sitting over to our right is a couple in practically top hat and tails, I mean, formal tuxedo, gowns. And over to our left is the farmer from down the road who just managed to finish milking the cows. He and his wife came straight from the barn in their boots and coveralls, and nobody cared,” he said.
From that experience came another valuable lesson for Shepard.
“It’s not what you look like, it’s who you are,” he said, “and that is the essence of Vermont.”
Shepard also appreciates Vermont because of its diverse political landscape.
“Vermont is a very interesting [political] cross-section,” he said. “It’s a rational, reasonable place, and I think, more than anything, that’s what keeps me here.”
Finding inspiration close to home
Shepard is also an avid nature photographer and sound recordist, so Williston gives him a great natural environment to be in.
Last month, he published a collection of essays centered around Mud Pond, called “Old Growth Air: A Walk Through the Forest,” and is currently working on a project to capture the sounds of Williston over a full year.
Shepard is recording sounds like people ice skating and walking in the snow in the winter, sap dripping into a bucket and peepers in the spring, people swimming in a pond in the summer, and people walking over leaves in the fall.
He would like people to get a new appreciation for Williston through sound instead of sight.
“There are far more sounds than most people hear,” he said.
Shepard plans to donate the finished soundscape to the town by mid-summer of this year.
It will also be available on his podcast, “The Natural Curiosity Project,” found on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, and Amazon Music.