NORMAN, Okla. (ABP) — For his presence at so many hopeful beginnings and persistence in the midst of difficult stretches, Associated Baptist Press is honoring Oklahoman Bob Stephenson with its Founders Award.
Stephenson, 83, a retired geologist and philanthropist for freedom, will be honored at a special event Sept. 8 at NorthHaven Church in Norman, Okla.
As an ABP board member 1993-2010 Stephenson more than once pledged his personal resources to ease the nascent organization over a rough spot.
"It's hard to imagine that ABP would have survived without Bob Stephenson,” said David Wilkinson, executive director of the independent news service formed in 1990. “At those times when our financial sustainability was at risk and the future looked bleak Bob remained steadfast in his conviction that an independent and trustworthy source of information is essential for the Baptist movement."
“ABP needed to come on stream because that was the only arm of publication that would tell the truth,” Stephenson said. “ABP was one of the things that spun off from problems with the SBC that had to exist. If we didn’t have them the news wouldn’t get out.”
Other organizations supported or launched with his help include Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, Texas Mainstream Baptists, the Oklahoma Cooperating Baptist Fellowship (Oklahoma law restricts the term “cooperative” to titles of utilities) and Texas Baptists Committed. He also helped bring to life the New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta.
While he would prefer a phone call to public recognition, Stephenson said he is proud of his efforts to defend Baptist freedoms. “I had my day in the sun, and I have no regrets at all,” he said.
His longtime former pastor Lavonn Brown said Stephenson “learned how to give early on.”
“He is one of the few men I’ve known who have the gift of giving,” said Brown, who was Stephenson’s pastor for 29 years at Norman’s First Baptist Church.
After five years playing professional baseball, including 67 games primarily at shortstop with the 1955 St. Louis Cardinals, Stephenson decided his future was in geology, which he had studied while earning second-team All-American status as a baseball player at Oklahoma University.
He founded a successful oil-exploration business and often uses baseball terminology to describe its risks. Just as a baseball player who hits safely three times out of 10 is considered great, so Stephenson regards seven misses out of 10 when sticking a pipe in the ground looking for oil is success.
Looking back on his long service on the ABP board, Stephenson said he is “most proud that we did not direct our writers as to what they could say or not say. We protected their backs from any criticism they might get.”
“We kept the main item — freedom of the press — alive with ABP,” he said.
“Bob can always be counted on to shoot straight and is a stalwart advocate for the value of free and unfettered news and information for Baptists,” Wilkinson said. “He’s one of a kind.”
Brown said his former church member “has a good sense of values and priorities and he puts his money in good places.” When Stephenson felt there should be younger people involved at national meetings, for example, he funded the expenses for some college students to attend.
One of Stephenson’s checks went to First Baptist Church to replace a stained glass window through which he sent a football during a fall evening decades ago. The incident is fixed in church lore and Stephenson still blames his long-time friend and fellow ABP board alumnus Dan Hobbs for “running his route too low.”
“The minute I threw it I knew it was gone,” Stephenson said. When the sound of broken glass tinkling onto the floor sounded in the sanctuary, a kid ran in to announce, “It wasn’t us, it was a deacon.”
Stephenson’s wife, Norma, knew immediately he was involved somehow. Hobbs is a former fixture in Oklahoma education who nominated Stephenson to join him on the ABP board. They were at First Baptist together 50 years until they left to help start CBF affiliated NorthHaven Church.
Both Brown and Hobbs will speak at the Founders Award dinner. Stephenson claims Brown “got me involved in this whole mess” with reports to deacons from SBC meetings. Stephenson said Brown’s reports of methods used to manipulate elections “grieved me greatly.” He still remained “a pretty keep-to-myself guy” until he found that “good Baptists” were not speaking up. Then he “got quite vocal.”
After baseball Stephenson worked 10 years as a geologist for the Pure Oil Company. Then he co-founded the Potts-Stephenson Exploration Company based in Oklahoma City. He still works several days a week, but he “goes in late and leaves early to beat the traffic.”
Wilkinson said Stephenson resisted the idea of being recognized so publicly for his work, and would say of his success, “I just got lucky.”
In fact, Wilkinson said that with Stephenson’s advocacy for 17 years, it was ABP that “just got lucky.”
Norman Jameson is reporting and coordinating special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder.
Click here for more information about the event.