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Jack Stephens: A master gentleman

Jack SheehanBy Jack Sheehan,
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Witt and Jack Stephens
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Jack Stephens (R), shown here with his brother Witt. (Courtesy of travs.com)

There are those in the world of golf who seem to be front and center at all times. They are the type who cherish the spotlight and are more than willing to reap every ounce of glory they can from the game.

Then there are men like Jackson T. (Jack) Stephens, the Arkansas businessman who died in 2005 after a lifetime of giving back to the game. Jack fully appreciated the most important things that golf offered him: wonderful recreation, breathtaking scenery, and the most ideal venue on earth to make friends and strengthen friendships. And he always tried to give back to his sport in equal measure.

Jack's list of contributions to golf could easily fill this space, but there are two that deserve special mention:

• His influence with Augusta National and The Masters for more than 40 years, including seven as chairman. Most golfers recognize Stephens as the soft spoken gentleman with a buttery Southern drawl who presided over Butler Cabin ceremonies from 1992-1998, including Tiger Woods' historic 12-stroke win in 1997, the Nick Faldo-Greg Norman drama of '96, and Ben Crenshaw's emotional "win it for Harvey Penick" triumph in 1995.

One of the few structures allowed on the grounds at Augusta is the Stephens Cabin, a naming privilege which put Jack in company with Bobby Jones, Cliff Roberts and President Dwight Eisenhower.

When Tiger shot 270 11 years ago to win by 12 strokes, the word spread quickly that the members would try to Tiger-proof the course. Stephens didn't seem in a particular rush. When someone asked what he'd do if Tiger were to shoot even lower scores in coming years, Jack replied, "I suppose we'll anoint him."

• His initial contribution of $5 million which helped launch the First Tee program. Jack Stephens' philanthropic efforts were often directed towards children, and when Jack saw the chance to introduce his favorite sport to kids who would never have had an opportunity to learn the game under other circumstances, he led the charge. The First Tee of Arkansas program Stephens started is a model for the rest of the country.

"We initially went to Jack for advice on the startup of the First Tee," PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem told me. "We weren't asking for money. But Jack's grant really got us started in a big way."

Jack Stephens: A story of class

I had the honor of meeting Jack Stephens eight years ago when he enlisted me to edit a book he was writing with physician T. Glenn Pait.

The book was titled "Golf Forever," and its purpose was to provide medical information and anecdotes from great golfers about how to keep the body in shape for a lifetime of golf. All the biggest names in the game jumped at the chance to contribute, including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, and dozens more.

As he grew older, Stephens thought it a shame that so many of his golfing partners had to drastically curtail their playing due to age or infirmity, and the book he produced belongs on every golfer's shelf as a reliable reference work to help golfers prevent injuries or recover quickly from the aches and pains that do occur.

A few years later I completed a second book in which Jack was involved, an account of his remarkable graduating class from the United States Naval Academy. The book is titled "The Class of '47" and includes long biographical chapters on five outstanding men from that class. In addition to Mr. Stephens, there are his distinguished classmates Jimmy Carter, former U.S. President and the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize recipient; Admiral Stansfield Turner, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Carter; the late Admiral William Crowe, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Reagan and Bush (41); and the late Admiral James Stockdale, (who died just two weeks before Jack Stephens), a Medal of Honor winner and the highest ranking Naval officer held captive in the Vietnam War. Stockdale was a POW for seven and half years, held in solitary confinement for four of those years, and his incredibly heroic actions during that time produced several books and a movie.

I met all of these men - with the exception of President Carter, who invited me later to the Carter Center in Atlanta for private interviews for the book - at an 80th birthday party in Little Rock for Jack Stephens in 2003. I was amazed at the collection of notables who had flown in from around the country for the event. Broadcasters Chris Schenkel and Pat Summerall, governors and U.S Senators past and present, golfer Raymond Floyd, architect Tom Fazio, and the political and war heroes listed above could be seen mingling throughout the room.

During the cocktail hour, in conversations with Admirals Stockdale and Crowe, I learned that they had first befriended Jack Stephens as classmates at Annapolis, and when they told me about their fellow classmates Jimmy Carter and Stansfield Turner and half a dozen other nationally renowned political and business leaders, I said, "That's an amazing group to all be in one class. Has anyone ever done a book on you guys?"

Crowe said although the possibility had been discussed many times, nothing had ever been done. I seized the opportunity.

One of those few who cared

Stephens Inc., the Little Rock-based investment banking firm which Jack Stephens ran with his brother Witt and then took over after Witt's death, became the largest off-Wall Street investment banking firm in the country. Certainly one of the keys to the company's growth was Jack's ability to make good and true friends. His relationships with Sam Walton and the principals of the Tyson [chicken] family led to Stephens Inc. taking both Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods public.

And when the family trust of billionaire Don Reynolds was looking for a company to take over the newspaper and media company whose flagship is the Las Vegas Review Journal (the largest newspaper in Nevada) they didn't have to look much further than their Arkansas neighbor and friend Jack Stephens.

A Who's Who in the worlds of sports, politics, business, and philanthropy turned out at a memorial service in Little Rock in July, 2005, to honor Jack Stephens. Lou Holtz, who became close friends with Jack when he coached the Arkansas Razorbacks in the 70s and 80s, gave the eulogy.

"When people hear about a personal misfortune that occurs to you, 90 percent of them don't care," Holtz said. "And the other 10 percent are just glad that it didn't happen to them (pause to smile) - but Jack was one of those few who cared. And that's just one of the things that made him so special."

Later on, Pat Summerall and at least four other friends of Jack Stephens gave me similar versions of a story that has become part of the lore of Augusta National.

It seems that some time in the 1970s, a new member asked to join Stephens' group on the first tee at Augusta. Jack welcomed the man warmly, and the newcomer suggested they have a little wager.

Jack replied that they played friendly games for $10 at Augusta, and that would be fine.

The man hitched up his trousers, and said, "At my home club back in Detroit, we play for a hundred-dollar Nassau with automatic two-down presses."

"My, that's impressive," Stephens said, "but we keep our betting to $10 here."

The new member grumbled all the way around the course, making comments to the effect that he was hungry for some action and that he expected that members of Augusta National could afford larger wagers than that.

Jack Stephens just let the grousing go without responding.

When they had finished the round and adjourned to the members' card room, the man suggested they have a game of gin rummy.

Stephens said that would be fine, that the custom at Augusta was to play for a penny a point.

"You've gotta be kidding me," the man said. "At my club in Detroit we play for $10 a point."

Having listened to this refrain for four hours, Jack Stephens had heard enough.

"Mr. Johnson (not his real name)," Jack said, as other members in the room looked up to hear Stephens' voice raised for one of the few times. "If you tallied up all your holdings - stocks, real estate, the whole nine yards - what would you say your net worth would come to?"

Johnson was taken aback by the question, but finally puffed out his chest and said, "Oh, I'm probably worth between 15 and 20 million, I'd say."

With that, Jack Stephens took a deck of cards from the table, slapped it on the bar and said, ""I'll cut you for it!"

For the first time that day, the new member was overcome by silence.

The best thing about golf: People like Jack Stephens

As I was learning golf as a boy, my dad repeatedly told me that the best thing about learning to play golf was that it would provide an avenue to meet great people.

In the case of Jack Stephens, he couldn't have been more right.

An author, professional keynote speaker, celebrity host, and humorist, Jack Sheehan is a 30-year Vegas insider. He is a New York Times best-selling author and screenwriter, with more than 11 books in print, including two with professional golfer Peter Jacobsen, Buried Lies (1993) and Embedded Balls (2005).

 
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