Jewish World Review July 27, 2005 / 20 Tammuz
Artist in residence
To make a great fortune is an art, or so I'm told.
If that's the case, Jackson T. Stephens of Little Rock, Ark., was surely an artist of the first rank. The news of his death at 81 brought to mind just how much that talent of his meant to Arkansas; it changed not just our economy but our reputation.
This state, once haunted by the memory of Orval Faubus and the school-integration crisis of 1957, is becoming known instead as the home of Tyson, Wal-Mart and Stephens Inc., one of the largest (if not the largest) investment houses off Wall Street.
Jack Stephens himself might only have harrumphed at any mention of his having any great talent. He just called it work, work, work. But many artists do, whether their medium is stone or the stage or paint on canvas. His medium happened to be finance.
If making money is an art, giving it away is a greater one. When done well, with an artist's touch, it's called philanthropy. And it requires, like the other arts, not just inspiration but intention. And work, work, work. If you seek Jack Stephens' works, just look around Little Rock:
There's the Jackson T. Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute. Plus two endowed chairs there in geriatrics. He was also a big giver to St. Vincent Infirmary just up the street.
Not far away is the new basketball arena at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
And the Stephens campus of the still new Episcopal prep school here.
And the 30,000-square-foot addition to the Arkansas Arts Center.
Jack Stephens wasn't just the leading contributor to that project, but also donated $22 million in works of art to be housed there.
Then there was his generous support of a plan, called First Tee, to create hundreds of golf courses for young people across the United States so poor kids who might not have a chance to play golf at crowded public courses can learn the game. (The next Tiger Woods could be out there somewhere.)
Golf and Mister Jack were inseparable; he served as the fourth chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, and may have been most in his element on its links.
Whether playing golf or backgammon, he thought ahead. Just as he did in finance. Stephens Inc. was underwriting a small Arkansas-based company called Wal-Mart when it went public in 1970 at $16.50 a share, and helped another little ol' firm, Tyson, acquire Holly Farms in the 1980s.
It wasn't all growth and roses. Maybe the truest measure of Stephens' character was the calm and determination with which he weathered the crises the stock drops and bank failures that might have undone lesser men. Where others saw disaster, he saw just another bump to be ridden out, or maybe an opportunity no one else appreciated.
Jack Stephens and his older brother Witt used to preside over lunchtime salons of a sort in their plush suite in the Stephens Building, which towers over downtown Little Rock. The surroundings and service were splendid, and the food country. Fried chicken and green beans were usually on the menu. Cornbread was a staple. Just as a reminder of where they'd come from and to keep everybody's feet on the ground up there in the clouds.
Somewhere along the line, Jack Stephens had also graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, but perhaps the most impressive thing about him was that he didn't strive to impress. Or need to. He exaggerated neither how far he had come in life nor, much rarer in Great Men, how little he had to start with.
Another thing about Mister Jack: He had a healthy appreciation not just for his state's strengths, but for his own limits. When he chose not to run for the U.S. Senate in 1986, he was refreshingly candid about it: "I have intensely considered this race myself, because I have a clear image of what Arkansas can be. And, the final conclusion is that I have had to admit to my family, my friends, and myself that I am not emotionally or temperamentally suited to perform the myriad details associated with this office."
In short, he was a good enough politician to know he wasn't one.
It was always refreshing to run into Mister Jack in town, even in his later years when he needed help to get around. He somehow managed to combine a straightforward, businesslike manner with a natural, informal air. He seemed someone who knew what life was about: not only accomplishment but helping others accomplish their dreams.
Perhaps best of all, Jack Stephens' example is sure to influence the next generation of philanthropists out of this fast-developing state the way a master founds a whole school of art.
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