Jackson Thomas Stephens (1923–2005)

Jackson Thomas Stephens was one of the most successful, high-profile business figures in Arkansas during the twentieth century, joining his older brother Wilton R. “Witt” Stephens in building Stephens Inc. of Little Rock (Pulaski County) into one of the nation’s largest brokerage firms. Stephens also became a well-known philanthropist, supporting institutions ranging from the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock) and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).

Jack Stephens was born on August 9, 1923, in Prattsville (Grant County), the youngest of the six children of A. J. Stephens and Ethel Pumphrey Stephens. A. J. Stephens was a farmer and a politician who served two terms in the state House of Representatives. Stephens recalled his father telling the children, “It’s no disgrace to be poor. It’s a disgrace to stay poor.” On the family farm, Stephens learned to pick cotton and operate a mule-drawn plow. By age fifteen, he was working during the summer in Hope (Hempstead County) as a bellhop and shoeshine boy at the Barlow Hotel. He also delivered telegrams.

Stephens attended Prattsville’s public schools in his early years but graduated from high school at Columbia Military Academy in Columbia, Tennessee. He began college at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and later received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, where he was part of the class of 1947. One of Stephens’s classmates at the Naval Academy was future president Jimmy Carter, who would receive strong support from Stephens in later campaigns.

Stephens was married to Mary Goodman Amerine Stephens from 1948 to 1971. The couple had two children, Jackson Thomas Stephens Jr. and Warren Amerine Stephens. Stephens was married to Mary Anne Hurst Shula from 1981 to 1991. Both of Stephens’s marriages ended in divorce.

Poor eyesight kept Stephens from active duty in the U.S. Navy. His brother, however, offered him a job at what would become Stephens Inc., and so he moved back to Arkansas. The two brothers were very different in personality: Witt, older by sixteen years, was outgoing and a master salesman, while Jack was quiet and studious. Stephens took on his new job with zeal and was made an equal partner in the company in 1956. He became the company’s president and chief executive officer in 1957 after Witt Stephens had become the president and chairman of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. When Jack Stephens joined the company, it was primarily a municipal bond house. He helped build it into a diversified financial conglomerate, partnering with his brother to buy what would become Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Co. and the oil and gas exploration firm that became Stephens Production Co.

Companies that Stephens invested in, advised, or took public through the years included Walmart Inc., Tyson Foods, Dillard’s, and Alltel. After Stephens Inc. helped underwrite the initial public offering of Walmart Inc. in 1970, Stephens served on the Walmart Inc. board for almost fifteen years. A 1990 feature in Fortune told of how the two brothers had “built their family business from a bucket-shop bond house into a full-fledged investment bank with $650 million in capital at its disposal, enough to rank it 13th among U.S. firms, just behind Kidder Peabody.”

Stephens once told a reporter, “There are only two pleasures associated with money—making it and giving it away.” His major gifts included: $48 million to build the Jackson T. Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute at UAMS; a $22 million art collection to the Arkansas Arts Center, along with money to expand the center; funds to purchase the land and build the Jackson T. Stephens campus of the Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock, followed by a $20 million endowment for the school; $20.4 million to build the Stephens Arena on the UALR campus; a $5 million endowment to Harding University in Searcy (White County); money to help establish the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at UA; money for the establishment of the Bill and Skeeter Dickey Scholarship for the UA athletic department; money for the Delta Project, a program designed to educate underprivileged children from the Arkansas Delta; $10 million to the Naval Academy (the largest donation in service academy history) to fund the renovation of the football stadium, which was named Jack Stephens Field; and $5 million to help start the First Tee youth golf program.

Stephens was also a noted sportsman. In 1962, he was invited to become a member of the prestigious Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, the home of the Masters. He served as the fourth chairman of the club from 1991 to 1998 and later was chairman emeritus. He coauthored a book on golf with Little Rock physician T. Glenn Pait. The book, Golf Forever: The Spine and More: A Health Guide to Playing the Game, was published by Stephens Press in June 2003. Stephens also was a college football fan and an avid quail hunter. He was a close friend of and adviser to Frank Broyles during Broyles’s many years as head football coach and later athletic director at UA (Stephens had helped bring Broyles to Arkansas from the University of Missouri). Stephens also entertained many of the nation’s top business and political leaders through the years at his 6,000-acre quail-hunting plantation in southern Georgia.

In 1986, Stephens Group Inc. was formed and became the parent company of Stephens Inc. His son Warren took over Stephens Inc., and Jack Stephens became chairman of Stephens Group Inc.

Though generally shy, Stephens was involved in civic affairs. He served on the boards of UA, the Little Rock Boys Club, and the Quapaw Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2000, the Arkansas State Golf Association Hall of Fame in 1998, and the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 1999.

Stephens died at his home in Little Rock on July 23, 2005. He is buried in Prattsville. In 2020, the Alotian Club in Roland (Pulaski County) announced the establishment of a new annual collegiate golf tournament named after Stephens, who founded the club.

For additional information:
Dumas, Ernest. “The Stephens Empire—I, Brothers Envy of Wall Street.” Arkansas Gazette. June 26, 1977, pp. 1, 14A.

———. “The Stephens Empire—II, Government ‘Partner’ of Brothers.” Arkansas Gazette. June 28, 1977, pp. 1, 15A.

———. “The Stephens Empire—III, A Legend in State Politics.” Arkansas Gazette. June 29, 1977, pp. 1, 10A.

Thornton, Raymond H. A. J. Thornton, As Remembered by His Family. Little Rock: August House, 1983.

Rex Nelson
Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities


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