In 1960, when Jackson T. Stephens was 36 years old and running the investment banking company Stephens Inc., out of Little Rock, Ark., he was invited to a cocktail party at Augusta National Golf Club.
Although his host for the evening didn’t say as much, the reason for the invite was a first step in him being asked to join the exclusive club, the home of The Masters.
Stephens was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was one of the South’s most admired and influential power brokers, and an avid golfer. But about an hour into the gathering that evening, Jack felt like it was time for him to leave. He wasn’t sure the club was the right fit for him.
As he walked out the door of the clubhouse to the parking lot, a man seated on a bench called him over.
“You’re Jack Stephens, aren’t you?” the man said.
“Well, I understand you’re a fine bridge player, and I could use a good partner in our games here at the club.” Stephens thanked the man and they visited for a few minutes.
“I hope you would consider joining our club here,” the man said. “We need bright young gentlemen like yourself.”
After a few more pleasantries, Stephens held out his hand.
“You’ve been awfully kind,” he said. “I didn’t catch your name.”
The man replied, “My name is Bobby Jones.”
Jack Stephens’ life would be forever changed from that moment forward.
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I would imagine that most of you who read this newspaper every day are aware it is owned by Stephens Media, a company based in Arkansas.
But few of you know a lot about Jack Stephens, the late billionaire and philanthropist. And that would be all right with Mr. Stephens, whose priorities were never cluttered by a need for personal recognition. But before we get into more detail about the considerable accomplishments of his life, there’s an item on his resume that non-golfers might not be aware of.
Among the responsibilities Jack Stephens held in his 45-year affiliation at Augusta National Golf Club was an eight-year term as the club’s chairman. This afforded him the privilege of presiding over the Butler Cabin ceremonies during which each year the new Masters champion and low amateur golfer are introduced.
Golf watchers remember Jack as the soft-spoken gentleman with a buttery Southern drawl who conducted the green-jacket presentation when young Tiger Woods shocked the golfing world in 1997 with a record 12-stroke victory, and when Ben Crenshaw broke down in tears after his win in 1995.
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Of the many colorful stories about Jack, this is my favorite: One day many years ago a new member of Augusta asked to join Stephens’ group on the first tee. Jack welcomed the man warmly, and the newcomer suggested they have a little wager.
Jack replied that at Augusta they played friendly games for $10, 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 (a three-way bet), with automatic two-down presses.”
“My, that’s impressive,” Jack said, “but we keep our betting to $10 here. Makes it more personable.”
The new member grumbled all the way around the course, making comments to the effect that he was hungry for some action and was disappointed that the well-heeled members of Augusta National didn’t play for heftier stakes than that.
Jack 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. Jack 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 a dollar a point.”
Having listened to this refrain for the past 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. “Let me ask you something. If you tallied up all your holdings – stock, real estate, homes, cars, cash – the whole nine yards, what would you say you were worth?”
Mr. 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 took a deck of cards from the table, slapped it on the bar and said, plenty loud enough for all the other members to hear, “I’ll cut you for it!” For the first time that day, Johnson was overcome by silence.
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I met Jack Stephens in 2000, when he enlisted me to edit a golf book he was doing. He was 77 at the time and had suffered a stroke, but his mind was sharp as ever, and although he spent the better part of his days confined to a wheelchair, whenever I or another person would enter a room, he would pull himself up from the chair and give us a big hug. He was the personification of a gentleman.
Through working with Jack on the book, I was honored to meet several of his fellow classmates from the Naval Academy. These were distinguished men of the Class of ’47. Among their ranks were former President Jimmy Carter; Medal of Honor recipient Adm. James Stockdale, the longest-held American prisoner of war in Vietnam; former CIA Director Stansfield Turner; former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Bill Crowe; and the first Medal of Honor winner from the Korean War, Capt. Thomas Hudner.
A long-time Las Vegas resident, Jack Raftery, who was also in the Class of ’47 and exemplifies all the exemplary qualities of his classmates, was most helpful when I came to write a book about their singular graduating class.
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In the writing profession, as one compiles anecdotes and stories to share, a vast range of people come onto one’s radar, representing a full spectrum of behaviors. I’ve interviewed everyone from world leaders to serial killers, unknown folks with mind-boggling stories to big talkers whose stories crashed like shattered crystal upon analysis. And there’s a takeaway from every one of these interviews.
But I learned more valuable life lessons from Jack Stephens and his friends than any group I’ve encountered. Collectively, their patriotism, their intellect, and their ability to do the right thing in difficult circumstances could serve as a model for all of us.
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At a memorial service for Jack after he passed away in July 2005, football coach Lou Holtz had this to say:
“When people hear about a personal misfortune that occurs to you, 90 percent of them don’t care. And the other 10 percent are just glad it didn’t happen to them. But Jack Stephens was one of those few people who cared. And that’s just one of the many things that made him so special.”
Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan’s column appears monthly. He says he loves the city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (702) 277-0660.