ACU chancellor emeritus John C. Stevens dies at age 88
Others participating in the service will include Money; Robert D. Hunter, ACU vice president emeritus; Milton Fletcher, president emeritus of Michigan Christian College; Gary McCaleb, ACU vice president; ACU senior trustee Joe Baisden of Belton; Dan Garrett, vice chancellor; and longtime friend and former ACU administrator Gene Linder.
Stevens was born July 15, 1918, in Richland to John Christopher and Ella Hardin Stevens. He was baptized in Corsicana by J.L. Hines in 1930 and within a year began preaching occasionally. He graduated a year early from Richland High School in 1934, where he was taught English and Spanish by his older sister Vern Stevens Lansford.
That fall he came to Abilene Christian University, where he was president of the Students’ Association in 1937-38 and of the A Club, and a member of Sub T-16 men’s social club, Alpha Chi National Honor Society and Phi Alpha Theta honorary historical society. He also lettered three years in debate. He graduated cum laude in 1938 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible.
The ensuing years took Stevens to difficult places in difficult times. During the Great Depression he was a student and son of a widowed mother. At Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge he was a chaplain. And during the ’60s he was a college president.
After graduating, Stevens preached for four years at the Jasper Church of Christ before accepting a one-year appointment at Central Church of Christ in Beaumont. In 1998, he returned to Jasper for a special celebration commemorating the 60th anniversary of his entry into full-time ministry. He often told the story of his hiring there – that the young congregation was looking for an experienced preacher who was married, had a car and experience in personal work. He responded that he was only 20 years old, unmarried, had no car and no money to buy one. They hired him anyway.
In 1943, he joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain with the rank of first lieutenant, attending the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University. In 1946, he was discharged with the rank of major. Although he always referred to his service under Patton as a “just a remote member of his command,” he was interviewed in 1971 by the Dallas Times-Herald about his memories of Patton’s famous address to his troops that was re-enacted in the opening to the motion picture “Patton,” and described it in detail.
Stevens is pictured in a famous photograph of the 28th Infantry troops entering the Champs-Elysees in Paris during a victory parade after the city’s liberation from the Germans. He was often asked about the photo and always responded with self-deprecating humor, telling one reporter in a March 2001 Abilene Reporter-News story, “Never were so many led by one so unaware of where we were going!”
Stevens’ travels across Europe during the war cultivated his interest in European history, and when he returned after the war he began work on his Master of Arts degree in history and political science from the University of Arkansas, which he completed in 1948. He received a Ph.D. from the UA in history and political science in 1954. He also did graduate work at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
In the fall 1948 Stevens returned to ACU and accepted a position as assistant professor of history. There he met again Marian Ruth Rambo whom he had first met several years earlier when he preached at a gospel meeting in her hometown of Huntsville, Texas, and stayed for the week with her family. He often explained that at age 30 a man should be able to make up his mind pretty quickly about such things. He did. They married Dec. 16, 1948, and were married 57 years until her death, Feb. 18, 2006.
Stevens became dean of men in 1950, dean of students in 1952 and assistant president to Don H. Morris in 1956. Stevens was inaugurated as president of ACU in 1969 and became the university’s chancellor in 1981 and chancellor emeritus in 1991.
During his tenure as chief executive, university enrollment grew from 3,110 to a then-record high of 4,560 in Fall 1980. Almost 9,000 students graduated during his years as president. The institution’s name and structure was changed from a college to a university.
Stevens’ influence on Christian higher education was national. In Texas, its scope included the entire private sector. Stevens was instrumental in founding the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas and was a charter officer of the organization that helped secure financial aid for students at private institutions via the Tuition Equalization Grant passed initially in 1971.
In addition to his academic responsibilities, Stevens was active in church and civic activities. He worshipped with South Thompson Church of Christ in Springdale, Ark., served as an elder for Central Church of Christ in Abilene, worshipped with Hillcrest Church of Christ for many years, and for the past several years at University Church of Christ.
He served as an Abilene City Councilman from 1967-70, president of the Key City Kiwanis Club, board chairman for the Abilene Boys Ranch, director of the Abilene United Fund, director of the Abilene Philharmonic Association, director of Citizens National Bank, director of Security State Bank, director of the Abilene Public Library, member of the board of directors for the Abilene Chamber of Commerce, as a member of Citizens for Better Government, chair of the board of directors for The Noah Project, as an officer on the board of directors for Disability Resources, a member of the Abilene Arts and Education Task Force, chair of the Taylor County Commission Against Pari-Mutual Gambling, and on multiple statewide boards relating to higher education. Stevens also headed fund-raising campaigns for Hendrick Medical Center, of which the Spectrum 80 campaign in 1977 raised a million dollars above its goal, and for The American Cancer Society.
Stevens received the George Washington Medal for public address from the Freedoms Foundation in Valley Forge, Pa., in 1961. He was honored in 1981 as Abilene’s outstanding citizen of the year. He received honorary doctorates from ACU, Amber, Pepperdine, and Oklahoma Christian universities. He received ACU’s Distinguished Servant Award.
In 1981, ACU established an endowed scholarship in the name of John and Ruth Stevens. In 1994, Abilene Christian Schools honored them as recipients of the John L. and June Estes Award and they were the honor couple at the National Family Conference. They were the first couple to receive the Gospel Advocate Christian Couple of the Year Award. In 1998, the university established the John C. and Ruth Stevens Chair of History.
After retiring from the presidency, Stevens returned to the classroom as a history professor and taught until 1999. Ruth regularly attended his classes and took on the task of preparing and grading his examinations. In June 1999 his history of the school, No Ordinary University: The History of a City Set on a Hill was published.
In addition to teaching, during his last two decades of service to the university Stevens spoken to hundreds of civic and professional organization, high school commencement ceremonies, lectureships and other special groups. In almost every presentation he found a way to weave in some history and some preaching.
Stevens was preceded in death by his beloved 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, of Grapevine, and by his daughter, Joyce Cole, and her husband, Jim, of Abilene. Other survivors include five grandchildren: Chris Stevens and his wife, Irina, of Columbia, S.C.; Jon Stevens and his wife, Amy, of Saginaw; Ben Stevens of Albuquerque, N.M.; Austin Stevens of Colleyville; and Jeannie Carroll and her husband, Michael, of Everman; great grandchildren Neely, Ava and John Christopher Stevens III of Saginaw, Katerina Stevens of Columbia and several nieces and nephews.
Memorials may be made to the John and Ruth Stevens Endowed Scholarship, the John C. Stevens History Chair, Hendrick Hospice, Christian Village of Abilene, Disabilities Resources, Inc., or Abilene Christian Schools.