The seventh president of Berea College, John B. Stephenson, was born on September 26th 1937 in Staunton, Virginia. He was the only son and the second child of Edna May Moles and Louis Stephenson. His father was a lieutenant in the United States Army and served in the Pentagon during the World War II years. Consequently, John grew up in Arlington, Virginia. After 1945, Louis Stephenson was discharged from his military duties and he moved with his family back to Staunton and later to Warrenton, Virginia to work first in a bank and then in a real estate.
In 1955, at the age of eighteen, John Stephenson enrolled at the College of William and Mary situated in Williamsburg, Virginia. While there, Stephenson studied sociology and earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1959. Upon completion of his undergraduate studies, he immediately pursued graduate studies in sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1961, he completed his Master’s degree in sociology under the guidance of Dr. Ernest Campbell with the master’s thesis “On the Role of the Counselor in the Guidance of Negro Youth.”
In August of 1961, he accepted a teaching position at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina. Based on John Stephenson’s letters to his parents, he enjoyed, yet at times was confused with, the quietness of Banner Elk. During his life in Banner Elk, he discovered two of his passions - the mountains and the Appalachian people. While at Lees-McRae College, he also met his future wife, Jane Ellen Baucom, who served as a faculty member at the College. In less than a year in 1963, John Stephenson and Jane Baucom married. They had three children: two daughters, Jennifer and Rebecca, and one son, David.
In 1963, he returned to Chapel Hill to earn his doctorate degree. Upon completion of his doctorate degree, Dr. Stephenson joined the Sociology Department at the University of Kentucky in 1966. Beginning in 1970, he served as the dean of undergraduate studies. He established a center for Appalachian studies through the grant that he received from the Rockefeller Foundation. From 1973 to 1974 he was a fellow at the American Council on Education. In 1979, he accepted the position of director of UK’s Appalachian Center. During his sabbatical year in 1981, he traveled to Scotland as a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar to conduct research on regional consciousness in Scotland and compare it to the Appalachian region. After his trip he published a book called Ford: A Village in the West Highlands of Scotland (1984).
Berea College Presidency
In 1984, at the age of forty-six, Dr. John Stephenson was selected as the seventh president of Berea College. He was selected among 171 candidates and two Berea alumni, who were also running for presidency. Dr. Stephenson was the first president of Berea College who was chosen from a public university. He quoted that he was honored, proud and excited to take on the position as President of Berea College.
During his presidency, Berea College saw many positive and progressive changes. During Stephenson’s administration, Berea College gained recognition not only nationally, but also and especially internationally as a higher institution for gifted students not only from the Appalachian region, but also from around the world. His contributions and devotion to the Berea College’s mission brought much progress and prosperity during the last decades of the twentieth century.
The former Berea College President Larry Shinn described Dr. John Stephenson as “a very effective fundraiser for the College.” Under Dr. Stephenson’s leadership Berea College’s endowment doubled in number, increasing from 120 million dollars to 360 million dollars, and there was a significant upgrade in the salary of the faculty and staff. Dr. Stephenson was deeply committed to serving the African American and Appalachian communities. He founded the Brushy Fork Institute and the Black Mountain Youth Development Program (BMYLP), both of which aimed to serve the youth of the Appalachian region. The purpose of the Brushy Fork Institute was “to promote education and innovative strategies to advance socioeconomic growth in the central Appalachian states…” This institution aimed at “strengthening individual leaders and building leadership networks…” The BMYLP program aimed at increasing cultural literacy and encouraging community service.
Dr. Stephenson valued Berea’s commitment to interracial education and the education of the Appalachian population. In 1990, a new field of women’s studies was added to the general studies and a minor in women’s studies was included into the College’s academic curriculum. In 1992, there was a revision of the academic curriculum and in 1993 the curriculum based on liberal arts education was accepted. Moreover, the First Lady Jane Stephenson contributed to Berea College’s mission of educating the Appalachian population by founding the New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW). The NOSW aimed to help the adult women of Appalachia to obtain professional skills and knowledge in pursuing higher education or careers.
In addition to emphasis on service to the Appalachian region, Dr. Stephenson was deeply committed to international education and service. Therefore, Berea College established the Tibetan Scholarship Program, which allowed Tibetan students living in exile in India to study in Berea. One of the highlighting achievements during Dr. Stephenson’s presidential office was the official visit to Berea College of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in April of 1994. In addition to that, the College became a participant in the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship program.
In 1992, Dr. Stephenson discovered that he suffered from a disease called chronic lymphocytic leukemia. This illness caused hardships not only his daily life, but also created obstacles in his presidential duties. Although he resigned from the presidency in early 1993, he created plans for an academically active retirement. He was committed to continue with positive mind and spirit. After officially retiring in August 1994, Dr. Stephenson traveled to Scotland to visit and reunite with his friends and spend some time with his family. Upon return, he planned to teach a course entitled “Inside/Out: Presidential Roles in Higher Education” at the Graduate School Education at the Harvard University. However, due to his weak health conditions Dr. Stephenson and his wife returned to Kentucky. On December 6th 1994 Dr. Stephenson suddenly died of a viral infection at the Berea Hospital.
During his academic life, Dr. Stephenson wrote and published several academic books:
Shiloh: A Mountain Community. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968.
Editor, with David S. Walls, Appalachia in the Sixties: Decade of Reawakening. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972.
Ford: A Village in the West Highlands of Scotland. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984. ISBN 0-8131-1507-8
A Scottish Diary. Photographs by J. David Stephenson. San Francisco: Custom and Limited Editions, 1990
Each semester, Berea College hosts three memorial concert convocations named after Dr. John B. Stephenson. The family of Dr. Stephenson serves as the sponsor of these convocations.
There is a John B. Stephenson Memorial Forest situated in the Berea College’s territory. The John B. Stephenson Memorial Forest is a host to more than 450 species of native plants, among them 32 ferns, and various tree species. The well-known 75-feet waterfall, Anglin Falls, is situated within the forest territory. The forest has an outdoor laboratory, which is often utilized by the Berea College students, as well as by nearby universities, in order to do ecological research. In December 1996, the forest was dedicated into the state nature preserve system.
Wilson, Richard. "Berea names UK official as president of college," The Courier-Journal, January 29, 1984, p. B4.