By Kelsi Peace, Features Editor
Dr. John C. Stevens, chancellor emeritus and eighth president of the university, rode his electric wheelchair around the two-mile Lunsford Trail just two days before he suffered a major stroke, in a typical demonstration of his love of life, said Dr. Royce Money, president of the university, in Chapel on Tuesday.
The next day, Stevens attended church, telling his daughter, Joyce Cole, that he would take himself to church if she wouldn’t drive him, a testament to his constant determination, Money said.
Money recounted Stevens’ famous lecture on the presidents of the United States, during which he would recite and categorize the presidents without any notes – and always with humor and insight. Stevens presented a similar lecture on England’s kings and queens.
Money painted Stevens as a man of integrity, humor and determination, and said he hoped to give students a glimpse into the former president’s life.
Stevens, who was 88, died Tuesday morning in an Abilene hospital after suffering a massive stroke on April 23, leaving behind a university, friends and family who will greatly miss his humor, attitude and leadership.
Stevens spent his lifetime in leadership roles, beginning with his time as a student at ACU, where he served as president of the Students’ Association and of the A Club in 1937- 38. He was also a member of men’s social club Sub T-16, Alpha Chi National Honor Society and Phi Alpha Theta honorary historical society.
Stevens left Abilene in 1938, graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Bible, to preach at the Jasper Church of Christ for the next four years. From Jasper, Stevens moved to Beaumont to preach at the Central Church of Christ for a year.
Stevens served three years with the U.S. Army during WWII as an army chaplain and earned several honors while in the service.
He was discharged with the rank of major in 1946 and was later interviewed by the Dallas Times-Herald about his memories of Patton’s famous address to the troops. In his typical fashion, Money said, Stephens’ response was both humble and humorous when he told the Abilene-Reporter News about his appearance in a famous photograph of the 28th Infantry troops entering the Champs-Elysees in a victory parade in Paris.
The Reporter- News quoted Stevens saying, “Never were so many led by one so unaware of where we were going!”
In 1948, Stevens returned to ACU as an assistant professor of history, where he met Marian Ruth Rambo for the second time.
The two were married in December of that year and were happily married for 57 years until her death in 2006.
Ruth Stevens often attended her husband’s classes and wrote and graded his exams.
Money said Stevens often joked, “Honey, without you, I would be Ruth-less.”
Stevens earned a master’s degree of history and political science in 1948 and a Ph.D. in history and political science in 1954 from the University of Arkansas. His passion for history remained throughout his life, from his academic pursuits to his work as a university historian later in life.
His written history of the university, No Ordinary University: The History of a City Set on a Hill, was published in June 1999, an achievement Money called a “crowning moment in a very distinguished career.”
Dr. Charles Marler, professor emeritus and senior faculty of journalism and mass communication, said Stevens loved reading almanacs and always greeted people by their full names – proof of his insatiable love of detail.
While he was an excellent administrator, Marler said, “At heart, he was a history professor.”
Once at the university, Stevens served in many leadership roles.
He became dean of men in 1950, dean of students in 1952 and assistant president to then-president Don H. Morris in 1956. In 1969, Stevens was inaugurated as the eighth president of ACU, a presidency known for Stevens’ policy of openness.
Ever the history professor, Stevens continued to teach classes during his presidency.
During his presidency, Abilene Christian College became Abilene Christian University, changing both the name and structure of the university, Money said. Cullen Auditorium and the Don Morris Building were also constructed during Stevens’ time as president.
But Stevens also contributed to the university and the Abilene communities in ways most aren’t aware of.
“His handprints are all over the campus,” Money said. “Most of them invisible.”
In 1981, Stevens became university chancellor, and in 1991, he became chancellor emeritus. Also in 1991, Money said, Stevens became his mentor.
“He was an early encouragement for me,” Money said. “He was so positive.”
Stevens, who had Parkinson’s disease, always exemplified grace, Money said.
“Even in his illness, he never lost his sense of humor. He was determined and tough, yet very gentle and caring.”
Stevens worked to secure financial aid for students at private universities through the Texas Tuition Equalization Grants, which many ACU students benefit from, Money said.
When Pinkies, a local liquor store, offered to contribute to Hendrick Medical Center where Stevens served as the head of fundraising, Stevens was asked if he thought the facility should accept the money.
With his characteristic humor, Stevens responded, “Let’s get it out of the hands of the devil as quickly as we can.”
Stevens’ sense of humor is very much a part of his memory.
“When I think of Dr. John,” Money said, “I think of him laughing.”
Dr. Gary McCaleb, vice president of the university, also remembers Stevens laughing. Stevens and McCaleb were part of a group of men that played golf together on Saturday mornings, a time McCaleb said allowed him to get to know Stevens outside the office.
“He was the same man whether he had a great golf shot or the worst golf shot,” McCaleb said.
McCaleb said Stevens just laughed at his bad shots, saying “Can you believe that?” His positive outlook on the golf course merely mirrored his attitude about life, McCaleb said.
Students may remember Stevens as the man who often joined the ACU community for Chapel, sitting on the right side of the stage and wearing his UA baseball cap. Others remember Stevens, who had a pilot’s license, offering plane rides to faculty and staff.
Ruth Stevens, Money said, always refused to ride with him.
But whether Stevens was professor, president or pilot, his passion and enthusiasm left the university transformed.
“It’s an amazing thing,” Money said. “The breadth, the scope, the expansive reach of his influence.”
Stevens was preceded in death by his wife, Ruth; his parents; his sisters Vern Stevens Lansford and Evalyn Stevens; and his brother, Dr. Clark Stevens.
He is survived by his son, Clark Stevens; his daughter, Joyce Cole and her husband Jim; five grandchildren; two great grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.
Visitation is 6-8 p.m. on Friday at the Piersall Benton Funeral Home, located at 733 Butternut. Services will be at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the University Church of Christ.