By Mallory Schlabach, Editor in Chief
Since Tuesday morning when news spread across Abilene that Dr. John C. Stevens, former president of the university and chancellor emeritus, had passed away, people began telling stories about the man who had influenced so many.
The storytelling continued Saturday as more than 650 people gathered at University Church of Christ for his funeral and celebration of his life.
Dr. Eddie Sharp, minister at University Church of Christ, opened Stevens’ funeral by explaining that the afternoon would be a time to mourn with his family and share the stories of his life. Friends of Stevens read his eulogy and paid tribute to his life.
Most tributes reflected on Stevens’ character and integrity, as well as his strong sense of humor.
Joe Baisden, friend and former minister at Belton Church of Christ, said Stevens was a master of unifying diversity and explained how Stevens saw his role at ACU.
Baisden said Stevens served as an elder at Central Church of Christ in Abilene before he became president of the university in 1969. When Stevens took the position as presidenthe could no longer be an elder, Baisden said.
“He said, ‘Joe, I can no longer be an elder. I need to be an evangelist for Christian education. They are both great roles but can’t be done together.'”
Stevens went on to lead the university through some of its greatest times during his 20-year tenure, a tenure known for its openness.
In his inaugural address Stevens said, “I hope we can always be a liberal arts institution in the finest traditions of higher education. We shall expect to continue to explore, as fully as our talents, time and resources will permit, issues facing modern man. There are no subjects on this earth, or in outer space, or in the metaphysical realm, which we cannot study on the campus of Christian institution of higher learning.”
This address set the tone for his tenure where enrollment grew from 3,110 to 4,560 in fall 1980.
During his presidency, construction was completed on the Don H. Morris Center, Cullen Auditorium and four major housing projects. Faculty increased by 30 percent, and the university’s name was changed from college to Abilene Christian University.
Besides serving the university as a dean, professor and administrator, Stevens mentored and influenced the lives of those around him.
Baisden said he learned five things from Stevens during his life: marry a woman smarter than yourself,
always do your best for the Lord, learn to laugh at yourself and teach others through your mistakes, don’t panic in stressful situations, and a minister is a servant to his congregation and his community.
Milton Fletcher, vice president for Planned Giving, Disability Resources Inc., said throughout his life he found himself asking the question: What would John do?
“John had great attributes – a marvelous spirit. You never saw him lose his temper. He was direct in conversation and had a great sense of humor, which you’ve learned by now,” Fletcher said.
He said being around people like Stevens made you a better person, and it influenced the way you saw the world.
Dr. Gary McCaleb, vice president of the university, read a tribute from Dr. Bill Teague, former president of the university. In his tribute, Teague reflected on Stevens’ ability to discern the right thing to do in every situation and time of crisis.
The final tribute came from Dr. Royce Money, president of the university, who reflected on the optimism that defined his life.
“John was known as the ‘happy president’ because of his optimism,” Money said. “He didn’t just see the glass half full – it was full.”
Stevens was a pilot and enjoyed flying to venues for the university. Money recalled a story he had heard about Stevens flying with someone to New Mexico despite thunderstorm warnings.
“John just said, ‘No, we’ll be fine. Get in the plane.’ As they flew on to New Mexico it was apparent that the storm had indeed gotten worse when Stevens’ passenger asked him if they were flying upside down or not,” Money said.
“‘Why do you ask?’ Stevens said.
His passenger’s reply was: ‘Because my tears are falling up my face.'”
Money said of all the stories about Stevens, this was his favorite.
Money said this optimism and humor was even apparent when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“He knew my father had Parkinson’s and told me, “Well, I guess if it’s good enough for Pope Paul and Billy Graham, then its good enough for me,” Money said.
Money also talked about Stevens in the classroom.
Soon before Money became president in 1991, he said Stevens had set up a five-minute appointment with him.
He came in and said he had just one question: “When you become president, how long are you going to let me teach?”
At this point Stevens was 72 years old. Money said he was thrown off guard and had to respond with humor: “As long as you can find the classroom,”- a deal, he said, that worked out perfectly for both of them. Stevens continued to teach history until 1999.
Near the end of the funeral, the ACU A Capella Chorus, directed by Dr. Michael Scarbrough, associate professor of music, sang “Teach Me Lord to Wait.”
Stevens’ was buried following the funeral in Elliott-Hamil Garden of Memories with an honor guard that was provided by the U.S. Army.
He is survived by his son Clark of Grapevine, his daughter Joyce Cole and her husband Jim of Abilene. Other survivors include five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, as well as several nieces and nephews.