Former students remember SCC journalism prof Jean Stephens, 1926-2011
Obituaries are invitations to cliché. Reporting the death of one’s former journalism instructor should be an admonishment against cliché. But as I interviewed former students and former colleagues, clichés flowed like tribute: Yvonne Jean Stephens—she preferred Jean, and her students called her “Doc”—was that once-in-a-lifetime teacher who makes a difference in your life.
For those who didn’t study journalism at Sacramento City College between 1957 and 1986, Dr. Stephens was a figure not unlike John Houseman’s stern and revered law professor in The Paper Chase, but far more lovable and devoted to her students as if they were her children. Stephens died a few weeks ago at age 85. Here are remembrances from some former students.
She truly thought herself the boss of you—especially if you had any potential. Doc drove you hard. She denied bylines until assignments were perfectly completed. And you put up with Doc’s tough love because you knew, deep down, she was right.
—Donnell Alexander, journalist and documentary maker, Los Angeles
She was very helpful to me being able to pioneer the serious critiques of music. She said, “It doesn’t mean anything when you say the guitarist was really cooking. You have to get deeper into it. You have to make the reader understand. What does ’really cooking’ mean?” She helped me get beyond the kind of clichés that a fan might feel perfectly comfortable saying to another fan. For explaining how it is a guitar player got to the point of taking off— the sense of controlled abandon—she was someone who kept me grounded in journalism as I was trying to move into something that was being created. Prior to 1967 nobody took music seriously. She made me write so that she could understand what I was trying to say.
—Mick Martin, blues musician, radio host, former movie and music critic, Sacramento
I have to admit being a bit skeptical writing a remembrance about Jean for fear her spirit will be lurking to proof-read anything I might say. We had our head-bumping moments, she and I, but I learned a lot from her nonetheless, as did many others she taught, coached, encouraged and then proudly watched progress on to the staffs of Sacramento’s two daily newspapers. Within a year, I caught on at The Sacramento Union, initially as a copy boy, and then went on to a long career in writing and editing sports at both The Union and Bee, again in no short thanks to what I learned at SCC under Jean’s guidance. A valued friend and mentor, she had a vast, loyal alumni in journalism, well-deserved.
—Jim Jenkins, retired journalist, Sacramento
Dr. Stephens believed in me, something so important in guiding a young person. It was her powerful positive influence she instilled in me that gave me belief that I could succeed as a photographer. Her classroom prepared me for the working world, instead of it just being an academic exercise in the classroom. She was one of those special teachers out there who makes a difference in people’s lives. I don’t know what would have happened if not for her. I owe my success to her.
—Craig Lee, photographer, San Francisco
As an editorial cartoonist/illustrator, I wasn’t part of Dr. Stephen’s throng of mainly writers and photographers. However, creating writers and photographers was not Dr. Stephen’s greatest skill … creating opportunities was. Whether it was entering work in competition, or going after that internship or freelance gig, she always encouraged us to look for opportunities and go for them and do our best at them. If there weren’t any opportunities, we made them. Experience led to excellence. Doc threw us into the deep end, but never let us drown.
—Benton Jew, illustrator, Los Angeles
Later in my career when I’d run up against an especially difficult or demanding editor, I’d quietly thank Doc for being Doc. Years after leaving Sac City, I’d occasionally visit Doc at her home. More times than not, she would send me home with children’s books she’d set aside for my two boys. I’d open a book to read to the kids and with surprise find a message to Doc from the author. These were very special gifts.
—Randy Allen, photography instructor, Sacramento
Doc had a tough exterior, and to many she probably seemed a bit of a curmudgeon. I work at Mother Jones magazine now, and when I think about Doc, I imagine her being a lot like Mary Harris Jones, our magazine’s namesake. Doc was brilliant and dedicated.
—Ed Homich, technology director, San Francisco
She was a mentor that pushed and pulled you in all directions. She would use all types of motivation if she saw that you had potential in journalism. One that I remember fondly was comparing me and my work to another second-year photographer, who at the time seemed to be shooting better. She asked, “Why can’t your work be more like his?” It was Doc’s way of motivating me to get my act together and use my head instead of just my finger when I am clicking the shutter. I have been in this business for close to 30 years and have mentored several people, and I teach the same thing that Doc taught me: You must always try to outdo yourself every time you click that shutter.
—Greg Clark, photographer, Placerville
I have for nearly a quarter-century kept a check for $100 drawn on the personal account of Dr. Y. Jean Stephens. The check is undated, but I remember the exact occasion for its existence. I had come to her house to say goodbye before leaving for an internship across the country, to be followed by more college in San Francisco. Doc and I sipped coffee from her floral china cups, and she handed me the check with the instruction that I was to squirrel it away in case of an emergency. This was an act often repeated with the launch of a student. In retrospect, the fact that she wrote a check rather than simply hand over a few bills was classic Doc. If and when I cashed the check, she would have learned both where I was and that things were not well, her own emergency-alert system. I considered cashing the check several times in the needy years that followed. But each time, the thought of making Doc aware of some failure motivated me to pull my act together and fight on.
—Lisa Davis, journalist, Pacifica