Stephens Legacy (Editorial)

It's difficult to know where or how to begin assessing the life and legacy of Jack Stephens, who died at age 81 on July 23. His impact on Arkansas business and politics was and continues to be far greater than anything less than book length could do justice.

In Arkansas, Jack Stephens is synonymous with wealth, success, power and philanthropy, which isn't bad for a country boy from Prattsville who grew up picking cotton. He was the embodiment of the American dream.

What comes to mind first are the numerous public deals that have resulted in some of the country's biggest corporations: Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Ben-tonville, Tyson Foods Inc. of Spring-dale and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell. We're all familiar with Stephens' rescue of Worthen Bank, the state's largest at the time. And his watching over the growth of Little Rock's Alltel Corp. Those in the newspaper business remember the deal that converted Donrey Media Group into Stephens Media Group.

Despite his diploma from the Naval Academy 1946, Jack Stephens' poor eyesight kept him from being commissioned as an officer. He came back to Arkansas and joined his older brother, Witt Stephens, in building a financial empire. He took over leadership at Stephens in 1957 and remained in charge until 1986 when he turned it over to his son, Warren. But he remained chairman of the company.

Inspired to work hard by their farmer father, Albert Jackson Stephens, Jack and Witt Stephens built their bond-trading operation into a powerhouse investment bank.

Stephens' accomplishments led him to positions on the board of directors of several major corporations, including the Missouri Pacific Railroad, Burlington Northern Inc., as well as Wal-Mart and Dillard's Inc.

Yes, Jack Stephens built a fabulous fortune. Forbes' latest estimate of his wealth was $1.5 billion. But he helped others along the way to build wealth, too, by staking Sam Walton and Don Tyson (both became billionaires) and others.

Making nearly as big an impact was his political wheeling and dealing in the state, sometimes even out of state — just ask Bill Clinton or George Bush or Jimmy Carter. He played both sides of the fence, and the candidate Jack Stephens backed would probably be in office after the election.

Outside Arkansas, he was best known as a passionate golfer who chaired the famed Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, home of the annual Masters tournament.

What makes his legacy even more lasting, however, is not just the wealth he made or helped make for others, but the wealth he gave away.

He donated millions of dollars to support hospitals, schools, sports programs, art museums and more.

The size of his gifts brought attention to the giver, as big dollar signs always do, but Jack Stephens was not a man who felt the need to buy his legacy.

Perhaps Gov. Mike Huckabee said it as well as can be said: "Some people live to gather riches, but Jack Stephens loved to give away his resources, and instead of leaving wealth, he left a legacy in which he poured vast amounts of his earnings into the Arkansas he loved and served."

In all that he did, Jack Stephens loved and promoted Arkansas. The state owes a debt of gratitude for all he did for so many.

He will be missed.