Funeral for Stephens Set for Wednesday

The funeral for Jackson T. "Jack" Stephens, chairman of Stephens Inc., is set for 3 p.m. Wednesday at Episcopal Collegiate School, where the campus is named in his honor, on Cantrell Road in Little Rock. Stephens died Saturday at age 81.

Stephens, an icon of business and philanthropy in Arkansas, died at his Little Rock home. He was chairman of Stephens Group Inc., a diversified financial holding company that includes Stephens Inc., founded in 1933 in Little Rock by Jack's brother, W.R. "Witt" Stephens, who died in 1991, and Stephens Media Group, formerly Donrey Media Group, which Stephens purchased in 1993.

Witt founded Stephens Inc. to trade Arkansas municipal bonds. Jack, who as a youngster picked cotton and worked as bellhop and shoeshine boy, joined the firm after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946.

In 1956, the two brothers from Prattsville became equal partners in the company. Jack would serve as CEO of Stephens Inc. until 1986, when his son Warren Stephens took over, and as chairman of Stephens Group until his death.

Under Jack Stephens' direction, Stephens Inc. entered the equity markets with emphasis on building a corporate finance practice, equity trading department and an expanded bond-trading department.

News of Stephens' death Saturday brought condolences from the worlds of business, politics and philanthropy.

Former President Bill Clinton said he and wife Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, were saddened to learn of Stephens' death.

"I am grateful for the many contributions he made to building Arkansas, and for the warm, personal relationship we developed over the last few years," Clinton said in a statement released Sunday. "I appreciated his support when he gave it, enjoyed our arguments when we differed, and always found him a fascinating, commanding personality. Our prayers are with his family at the close of his rich, full life."

Scott Ford was Jack Stephens' assistant before joining his father, Joe T. Ford, at Alltel Corp. and eventually rising to president and CEO of the Little Rock telecommunications company. Ford called Stephens a "brilliant businessperson" and said he would be long remembered for developing businesses and bringing high-paying jobs to Arkansas.

"Over the past 40 years, Jack Stephens was content to let others take the spotlight but every major business in our state, from Wal-Mart to Tyson Foods to Alltel, owes him a tremendous debt for the financing he provided as well as the wise counsel he was always on hand to give," said Ford, who worked with Stephens for 10 years. "Our state has suffered a tremendous loss and we all owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Stephens for the grace and wisdom he displayed in helping others become successful."

Great Influence

Despite being notoriously private and soft-spoken, Jack Stephens exerted great influence throughout the worlds of politics, business and philanthropy well beyond the borders of Arkansas.

Many of the state's largest companies owe their success to his involvement.

In 1968, Jack Stephens and Walter Smiley founded an information technology company called Systematics. Stephens put up the initial $400,000, and Smiley provided the technical expertise to start the company.

Systematics was purchased by Alltel Corp. in 1990 in stock swap valued at $528 million. Stephens Group Inc. owned 48 percent of the stock in Systematics when Alltel bought the company, and the acquisition of Systematics helped more than double Alltel's stock price at the time.

Systematics later became Alltel Information Services, which Alltel sold to Fidelity National Financial Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2003 for $1 billion.

Jack Stephens also saved Worthen Banking Corp. with a $30 million recapitalization in 1985, an investment later worth at least $350 million.

In 1993, under Jack's leadership, Stephens Inc. entered the publishing business with the purchase of Donrey Media Group, a company founded by the late Donald W. Reynolds in 1940 that owned a handful of newspapers around the country.

Stephens Media Group is headquartered in Las Vegas near its flagship daily, the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The company owns newspapers in Arkansas, Hawaii, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Washington, while also offering an Internet division and other publishing services. Stephens Media also operates two news bureaus, one in Washington, D.C. and another in Little Rock.

With its northwest Arkansas newspaper, Springdale's Morning News of Northwest Arkansas, Stephens plunged headlong into a newspapers war with another giant of Arkansas business, Walter Hussman, who publishes the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The Morning News and Hussman's northwest Democrat-Gazette edition continue to battle for dominance in the region.

"He was always very gracious and extremely friendly," said Rusty Turner, editor of The Morning News, of Jack Stephens. "The Stephens family and Stephens Media Group have always been great to us. I've been very pleased and grateful for the help and resources they've provided us over the years."

A Legacy of Giving

Despite being among the wealthiest men in the country, Jack Stephens continued to give millions of dollars to nonprofits, education and health care.

The onetime chairman of Augusta National Golf Club gave $5 million to the national First Tee organization, which now has courses in Fort Smith and Little Rock. The organization offers youths who otherwise might not have an opportunity to play golf access to the sport. Former President George Bush and golfing legends Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson traveled to Little Rock in 2001 to honor Stephens for his contributions to golf and the promotion of youth golf.

"Jack, we love you, and I am very, very grateful for what you've done," Bush said at the event.

Stephens was on the board of trustees for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock from 1948 to 1958. In the early 1950s, he led the charge to move the colleges campus from MacArthur Park to its current location on Markham Street.

"Without that move, we would have been landlocked a long a long time ago," UAMS Chancellor I. Dodd Wilson said. "It was probably as important a thing has been done in the last 50 years."

Stephens also donated millions to the school for endowments and buildings.

"He's done a lot for us. I mean it's just incredible how much his gifts have meant to us," Wilson said.

Stephens gave $48 million the UAMS to build the Spine & Neurosciences Institute. The gift was the largest in UAMS' 123-year history.

The 12-story, 216,000-SF Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute contains the Center for the Athletic & Aging Spine and the UAMS College of Medicine's departments of neurosurgery, neurology and otolaryngology/head and neck surgery. Basic and clinical research labs, outpatient clinical facilities, information technology support systems, and conference facilities for education seminars and symposia are also housed there.

Former President Jimmy Carter was the guest of honor at a ceremony celebrating the opening of the institute in 2003. Carter and Stephens were classmates at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Also that year, Stephens gave the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., $10 million to fund renovations to its Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and $2.5 million to the St. Vincent Heart Center at St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center. The money was used to complete the new St. Vincent Heart Center and purchase surgical technology.

More on Jack Stephens
Stephens Leaves Behind Substantial Business Legacy (Jeff Hankins Publisher's Note)
Arkansas Business Hall of Fame: Jackson T. "Jack" Stephens
Arkansas Business 20: Witt & Jack Stephens: Rural Charm and Urban Money
Company Profile: The Stephens Group Profile: Jackson T. "Jack" Stephens