Robert Loyd “Bob” Stephenson, a retired geologist and prominent philanthropist and advocate for Baptist freedom from Norman, Oklahoma, died March 20. He was 91.
Stephenson grew up in Blair, a farming town in southwest Oklahoma. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in geology. He played baseball for the Sooners from 1947-1950 and was named an All-American in 1950. Stephenson was drafted into the U.S. army in 1952 and played in armed forces leagues in Japan for two years. After that, he went on to play professionally, including one major league season for the St. Louis Cardinals, batting .243 in 1955.
After baseball, Stephenson worked for 10 years as a petroleum geologist for an Oklahoma oil company. He then co-founded Potts-Stephenson Exploration Company in Oklahoma City which he led with Ray Potts for more than 50 years.
Stephenson was an outspoken advocate for a free Baptist press and served more than a decade on the board of directors of Associated Baptist Press, the predecessor of Baptist News Global, during its nascent years.
“ABP needed to come on stream because that was the only arm of publication that would tell the truth,” Stephenson said in a 2011 interview. “ABP was one of the things that spun off from problems with the Southern Baptist Convention that had to exist. If we didn’t have them the news wouldn’t get out.”
Other organizations benefiting from Stephenson’s generosity have included the University of Oklahoma, First Baptist and NorthHaven churches in Norman, Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, Texas Mainstream Baptists and the Oklahoma Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Lavonn Brown, longtime pastor of First Baptist before his retirement in 1999, was Stephenson’s pastor for three decades and among his closest friends and confidantes.
“Bob and I were friends for 50 years,” Brown said. “He was a man of strong principle who grew up in a healthy religious culture that guided the quality of his life, including his business career, his faith and his remarkable generosity.”
Stephenson was presented ABP’s Founders Award, the news organization’s highest honor, in 2011. The award honors individuals and organizations that embody the founding principles of ABP/BNG and support its mission through significant professional or financial contributions.
David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher since 2008, praised Stephenson as “a person of character and conviction.”
“Like another straight-shooting and influential Baptist layman, the late John Baugh, Bob had little patience for pastors and denominational leaders who chose to straddle the fence as fundamentalists methodically gained control of the SBC in the 1980s and 90s,” Wilkinson said.
Stephenson championed a free religious press even after his service on ABP’s board of directors.
“He understood the value of an independent and reliable source of news and opinion for Baptist Christians and churches and he always put his money where his mouth was,” Wilkinson said.
Greg Warner, ABP’s executive editor for 17 years, also described Stephenson as a “fierce advocate for press freedom.”
“Bob understood that Baptist polity and the priesthood of the believer require fair, thoughtful and persistent journalism,” Warner said. “In humility, he might sit quietly in board meetings and shy away from lofty debates about journalistic strategies. But if the fundamental right of Christians to know came under threat, Bob would spring to alert, and you would find yourself arrayed with others behind him in the march into battle.”
Stephenson is survived by his wife of 70 years, Norma, and their two children, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
A formal memorial service in Norman will be scheduled at a later date.
The family requested that memorial gifts in remembrance of Stephenson be directed to the NorthHaven Church’s building fund, to a Baptist cause Stephenson supported or to another charity of choice.