Jackson T. (Jack) Stephens

 


Jack Stephens was born on August 9, 1923 in Grant County, Arkansas, the youngest of six children. Coming from humble beginnings on a farm near Prattsville in the Great Depression, the hard times and his parents taught him the values of self-reliance, diligence, integrity and hard work. His father, A.J. Stephens once told his young son, “It’s no disgrace to be poor, it’s a disgrace to stay poor.” His father also advised, “Success is not a destiny to be reached, but the quality of the journey we make.”

 

The advice from his father stayed with him throughout his life. In his younger years Jack Stephens worked on the family farm behind a mule drawn plow and picking cotton. By age 15, he held summer jobs as a bellhop and shoeshine boy at the Barlow Hotel in Hope, Arkansas. He added the delivery of telegrams to his duties when he realized he could do so after his normal hotel shift was finished.

 

A bright student, Mr. Stephens attended public schools in Prattsville and graduated high school from Columbia Military Academy in Columbia, Tennessee. He attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1946. (Class of ’47.)

Poor eyesight prevented Mr. Stephens from active duty in the Navy so he took a job offered to him on his graduation day by his brother W.R. “Witt” Stephens. With a simple handshake in his room at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Mr. Stephens agreed to join his brother as a 50-50 partner at W.R. Stephens Investments, a municipal bond firm in Little Rock.

 

Witt was outgoing, a natural salesman. Jack was quiet, unassuming and studious. A decade later, in 1956, Witt and Jack formalized their handshake and Jack became President and Chief Executive Officer the following year. (1957.) The two brothers acquired the Fort Smith Gas Company and renamed it the Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Company. The pair also acquired an oil and gas exploration firm and named it Stephens Production Company. Both investments proved to be the catalyst for expansion from a municipal bond business to a diversified financial group that became Stephens Inc.

 

Jack Stephens served as President and CEO of Stephens Inc. from 1957 until 1986 when Stephens Group, Inc. was formed and became the parent company of Stephens Inc. His son, Warren, became President and CEO of Stephens Inc. and Stephens Group, Inc. at that time. Jack Stephens became Chairman of Stephens Group, Inc. that year, a title he carried for the remainder of his life.

 

Over the decades, Mr. Stephens led the company to great heights. Under his leadership, Stephens Inc. invested or assisted in many enterprises including the former Union Life Insurance Company, the former Systematics, Donrey Media (now Stephens Media Group), Dillards, Alltel, Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and many more. Jack Stephens’ leadership and business acumen was responsible for the creation of hundreds of businesses in America and thousands of jobs. Many of those enterprises have become Fortune 500 companies, and a number of them are located in his native Arkansas.

 

In recent years, Mr. Stephens was recognized for his philanthropy but it is something he did all his life. He once told a reporter, “There are only two pleasures associated with money, making it and giving it away.”

 

For over 20 years Jack Stephens has been the principal benefactor for The Delta Project, a program designed to assist and educate underprivileged children in Arkansas’ delta. When he sold the Little Rock cable franchise in 1985, he put the profits into the City Educational Trust Fund.

 

For 20 years the Trust Fund has provided scholarships for students and incentive awards for innovative teachers. His gift of $48 million built the Jackson T. Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute on the campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) campus and financed the purchase of equipment for the institute as well as support programs and research.

 

The Stephens family has been a life long supporter of the Arkansas Arts Center and Jack Stephens loaned a portion of his personal art collection to the Center. The Stephens Gallery currently boasts the works of Degas, Monet, Picasso, Wyeth and more and has been recognized as one of the most important art collections in the country. Mr. Stephens was also the lead contributor for the construction of a new 30,000 square foot wing at the Arkansas Arts Center.

The Episcopal Collegiate School, the campus of which bears his name, occupies 31 acres near
downtown Little Rock. The total amount of this gift has never been made public but Mr. Stephens donated the money to purchase the land that comprises the campus. In April 2004, he donated $20 million of the announced $30 million endowment for the school. His son Warren and Warren’s wife, Harriet, donated the remainder of the gift. Mr. Stephens also donated $22.4 million for the construction of the Jackson T. Stephens Center on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR). This remarkable new facility is now the home court for UALR Trojan basketball.

 

The list of contributions to his community also includes a $5 million dollar endowment to Harding University, establishment of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas, and the Bill and Skeeter Dickey Scholarship at the University of Arkansas Athletic Department.

Mr. Stephens’ love of sports (football and golf in particular) led to a $10 million gift to the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland. The donation funded the recent renovation at the Navy Marine Corp Stadium near the campus which has been renamed Jack Stephens Field. The gift is the largest ever made to the Naval Academy.

 

When asked by the PGA TOUR if he would support the launching of a new program to teach golf and its values to children by creating affordable and accessible golf facilities, Mr. Stephens surpassed their expectations with a $5 million donation to help start The First Tee. The program serves children who have not previously been exposed to the game of golf.

Mr. Stephens loved the game of golf and once told a reporter, “Golf is a great teacher in life. The same skills needed to master this game are the same skills needed to master life, a life full of unseen obstacles and excitement.”

 

In 1962, Mr. Stephens was invited to become a member of the Augusta National Golf Club. Mr. Stephens served as its fourth Chairman (1991-1998) with the responsibility of overseeing the golf club and the most prestigious tournament in golf, the Masters. Upon retiring as Chairman in 1998, Mr. Stephens was named Chairman Emeritus.

 

Mr. Stephens won numerous awards and recognitions during his lifetime. He was honored with the Horatio Alger Award in 1980 and he was the first recipient of the J. William Fulbright Award given for international trade development in 1989. Mr. Stephens served on the board of the Little Rock Boys Club, The Quapaw Council of The Boy Scouts of America. He served 10 years on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law Degree and a University of Arkansas Distinguished Alumnus citation. He was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, the Arkansas State Golf Hall of Fame, and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Jack Stephens was an original American success story with roots deep in the soil of his home state of Arkansas and his other great devotion, the Augusta National Golf Club. His life was filled with many successes and his compassion, commitment and dedication resulted in an extraordinary journey that touched many lives.