In Jan. 10 IssueRussell County NewsBy Greg Wells, RCN Managing Editor
"There is somebody I'd like to nominate for the Russell County Hero," came a voice on the phone. "Sovel Stephens, he was a teacher a principal and served 17 years as the school superintendent. He was one of the best ones we ever had."
June Brewster was straight to the point. "He made us a really good superintendent."
A visit to Stephen's home finds a fit man with a quick smile and a serious nature. He begins his interview at the beginning, his birth, and progresses logically through his life.
It is different as the interview is finished up, when the camera is in the bag and notes are put away, Sovel comes to the forefront as he talks of turkey hunting and deer hunting with his sons.
That was the nature of the man in the past as well, when he tells the stories of working in the school district he stresses how much he enjoyed the students and his co-workers.
But then as time passes, "We always tried to be professional and business like.
"Over the years people become more than co-workers and more like a family," Stephens said. "Seems like we were always playing pranks on one another…"
He says it wasn't unusual for someone to be getting or sending someone else a fake note or memo about an upcoming official visitor or inspector from the capitol.
He mentions one person, then adds, "well don't use his name okay?"
Seems he and the other man did some farming together, and this man kept feeder hogs in his tobacco barn.
"Well he said one day that he'd noticed an odor on his tobacco, you know, from the hogs," Stephens said smiling.
So the plan was hatched to fake a letter to him from the tobacco warehouse saying that inspectors had rejected his tobacco.
"Oh it worried him to death," Stephens said. "We let it go to the point that he'd gotten a truck and was going to go to the tobacco warehouse."
He said it was then he and his partners admitted to the prank.
"Oh he had a few choice words for us," he said laughing. "And then we had one up on him so he owed us…"
Stephens laughs quietly as he remembers his friends. Their remembrance of him though he admits is sometimes embarrassing.
"I'll be somewhere and one of my old students will recognize me and I won't be able to place them," Stephens said.
He notes that as assistant principal in the county high school he knew every teenager in the county by name, and though his looks haven't changed all that much since then they have grown up and don't always look like they did, back when.
June Brewster remembers him though. Brewster said she worked with one of the federal programs when it first started, and not all the school district was happy to have her around.
"Those federal programs came out with a lot of red tape and restrictions," Stephens said. "For example only certain classifications of students were allowed in a particular class; therefore you could end up with one teacher with just a few students and another with 32 students who was making the same money. You weren't able to balance the load."
Brewster said he was more than kind to her, Stephens treated everyone with respect and kindness.
"I think he is the best superintendent we've ever had," Brewster summed up.
Stephens commiserated with the present school administrators. He took over as superintendent in 1978, when the economy was not quite out of a deep recession.
"With state expenditures falling during a shortfall," Stephens remembered. "We went through that. In fat years there's no problem. In the lean years you have to look to your personnel, like any business does."
Cutting back staff, reducing hours, stretching out maintenance schedules, delaying equipment purchases, it is all part of what has to be done when the money isn't coming it, Stephens said.
"Its an age-old problem and I suppose they're experiencing that now," he said. "Plus the state likes to tell you how to spend the money you bring in locally."
Stephens is a veteran of the war in Vietnam, though he speaks little of his time in a light tank unit. He graduated locally and went to Campbellsville College for his undergraduate work before going straight to work in the district. The war interrupted his time teaching and when he returned home he returned to the school system.
Through it all he married his wife Joyce in 68 and they raised three sons and now have the joy brought with three daughters-in-law and the 7 grand children they have.
He and his wife live on the farm his grandfather farmed, within view of where he was born. They attend Square Oak Baptist Church, where he teaches the Adult Bible Study class.