I’ll be 90 on August 11. That doesn’t seem possible.
That’s what Bob Stephenson said when I interviewed him two summers ago. That’s how he seemed to view life: There weren’t enough minutes in an hour, days in a week, or months in a year to finish his to-do list.
Stephenson accomplished so much in the big world he found, after leaving the small town of Blair to play baseball at Oklahoma in the 1940s. He died last month, on Friday, March 20. He was 91.
In early summer 2018, I met with Stephenson in an assisted living facility in Norman for a story about Jack Baer, who I featured again in Tuesday’s Transcript. I hadn’t realized until working on the most recent Baer piece that Stephenson was gone.
He was a church founder, a Sooner, a baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals, an Army veteran, a geologist, philanthropist, and media pioneer who kickstarted 24/7 sports radio in Oklahoma City, which is believed to be the third U.S. market to embrace the format after Denver and New York.
Stephenson co-founded KNOR radio in Norman with his son, Tim, in the 1980s, which would later include WWLS under its umbrella. It was an oldies station at first, but Stephenson had bigger things in mind, like sports.
News talk station KTOK was the most powerful voice in the OKC radio market in the early ‘80s, employing a strong sports host from New Jersey named Al Eschbach. Stephenson wanted him on his network and once tried to lure him over, unsuccessfully.
Then Stephenson tried again in 1984, offering a young Eschbach a raise KTOK couldn’t match. Eschbach joined WWLS and remains there. In his 43rd year doing radio, he’s one of Oklahoma’s most recognizable media personalities, hosting The Sports Animal’s afternoon drive time show from 4-8 p.m. on weekdays.
“Bob Stephenson doesn’t get enough credit. People credit me, but he’s the dude who really had the vision back then to go all sports, he and John Fox,” Eschbach said. “And I would’ve never, ever, left KTOK to go there unless I had the ultimate respect for Bob Stephenson. I knew he wasn’t gonna screw me. It was because of Bob Stephenson that I left. If someone else had own the station, and the [raise] was the same, I wouldn’t have left.”
Mike Steely now hosts a morning show on The Franchise 107.7 FM, but as a sophomore journalism student at OU his start came under Stephenson at KNOR as an unpaid volunteer.
“You think of a guy who could be the dad in a Norman Rockwell painting, just a super human being, a pillar of a guy. That’s Bob Stephenson,” Steely said.
Steely didn’t get a paycheck for a year, but the lessons were priceless. Once, Tim Stephenson caught laryngitis and couldn’t call an Oklahoma City 89ers baseball series in Wichita, Kansas. Steely was tapped for the job and rode shotgun next to Bob Stephenson on the three-hour trip.
“I would have been 20 years old. I was horrified. Totally horrified. I was no Vin Scully. I’d never done baseball play-by-play, maybe a few innings of OU baseball,” Steely said. “But the experience at the station, it was one of those things where you learned to be prepared for anything.”
Stephenson liked having a hand in anything and everything.
A standout baseball player at OU, he refused professional contract offers as a junior because he believed his petroleum geology degree would be more useful. After graduating in 1950 and serving in Japan for the U.S. Army until 1955, he enjoyed a five-year career as a shortstop with the St. Louis Cardinals and Minneapolis Giants.
“Defensively I was good enough to play in the majors with any team. Hitting, I was not,” Stephenson said in 2018. “I played five years — my best year was 1955 with the Cardinals, where I hit .247 — but I was usually a .220 hitter. And a .220 hitter’s not gonna play regularly.”
A pragmatic man, he weighed the facts: Minor league baseball players rode hot buses for hours on end, and petroleum geologists understood how to find oil. There was a lot of oil in Oklahoma.
So, the world had other plans for Stephenson’s encyclopedic memory and hard work. He co-founded Potts-Stephenson Exploration Company with Ray Potts, and the venture was successful enough that it opened opportunities for many others, like those in Oklahoma radio.
Stephenson also became a significant donor to OU’s Geology/Geosciences School and Religious Studies Department. He’s the founding member of NorthHaven Church in Norman.
A few weeks before we spoke, he gave $1 million toward upgrades at OU’s L. Dale Mitchell Park, becoming the first significant donor toward the project.
He didn’t want to talk about that very much during our visit.
Stephenson had a warm personality and southwest Oklahoma charm. But mostly, he stood out as a deep thinker.
While young, he knew sports were a short-term means to an end and that his brains would win out in the long run. He knew Baer could be a tough coach, even downright mean, but that his lessons would make him stronger.
Stephenson built a huge life out of his upbringing in Blair. He witnessed a ton. In 1945, he was playing American Legion baseball in Austin, Texas when a horn interrupted one of his games.
“I guess it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said. “We go, what was that? The guy came over the PA and said we just had a bulletin from Washington D.C. that President Truman announced World War II was over and that Japan had surrendered."
It was Victory Day.
Time really flew after that. It doesn’t seem possible that Stephenson could cram so much into his schedule, or impact people as he did.
“I trusted him,” Eschbach said. “This guy was about as honest as anyone I’ve ever met.”
Follow me @Tpalmateer83