Larry Stephenson lived a 55-year life that hopscotched the country and ended just as it seemed to be coming to fruition. Larry was the last of three children born to Ruth and Jim Stephenson. Larry, the most driven of the trio, was born on an elevator, foreshadowing a life of ups and downs.
As a youth, Larry spent time playing with friends and his cousins, especially Bobby Van Britson. "Larry and I were probably, as far as cousins go, as close as anybody,'' Van Britson said in 1998. "We were always doing something together." For a while, it was dance lessons. Larry, Bobby and a dozen or so others went to the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in seventh or eighth grade to learn all the steps. "We learned all those steps, then rock 'n roll came on and the waltz was gone and all those steps we learned were gone," Van Britson said.
Larry's brother, Frank, remembers a time they were throwing coal when Larry slipped and gashed his leg on a rusty nail. "It was uncle Billy (May) or uncle Bud (Alvey) who tied it up and took him to the hospital or he might have died,'' Frank Stephenson said in 1998. At some point, Larry had a bout with the measles that caused a punctured ear drum. But Larry stayed active in youth leagues and even raced in the local soap box derby. Uncle Elvin Limberger helped Larry build the race car, which was sponsored by the trucking company partially owned by Bud Alvey. "Uncle Elvin really did it, but Larry helped," Frank Stephenson said. "He rolled pretty good, too." But not all of Larry's youth was fun, games and youthful injuries. In the late 1940s, Jim and Ruth split, eventually divorcing in 1955. Jim had wandered in and out of their lives for years.
Larry was a strong student and a gifted athlete as a youth. "Larry was just a go-getter,'' said his brother, Frank. "He'd just go-go-go. He wasn't a quitter. He worked hard all his life. I couldn't figure him out."
Ruth, who graduated high school at 16, might have recognized Larry's potential early on. She was a strict elementary school teacher in Evansville. "Mother was hard on Larry,'' Frank said. "She just expected more out of him. He had to earn everything with her. She wouldn't give him no breaks." Larry generally rose to the expectations. Be it essay or athletic contests, he often was a winner. Frank remembers hearing Larry's name announced on the radio many times as a winner of $25 for an essay. In 1961, he was the Indiana state winner of the Elks Youth Leadership contest, winning $150 in U.S. savings bonds and a trophy. Once, Larry even won a trip to Washington, D.C. As a sixth-grader, Larry joined Frank on the Columbia School varsity basketball team, made up mostly of eighth-graders. Later, Larry played for Vogel, where Ruth was a teacher. "Larry was a very good player," Frank said. "With the cousins, Bobby Van Britson and them, we played on a church league team in Evansville, Ind. Nobody could beat us. We won a trophy every year." Entering high school, Larry was a well-rounded student and athlete. Soon, he would combine the two.
Larry liked to say he started high school as a freshman center on the basketball team, became a sophomore forward, then a junior guard, and finally a senior newspaper editor. He was an accomplished athlete in many sports, including employing the Fosbury Flop in the high jump, but more and more, he became interested in journalism. He was editor of the school newspaper, the North Star, and began working for the local papers, first the Evansville Courier and then the Sunday Courier & Press, which had a separate staff.
In journalism class at North, Larry often found himself working late on the school paper with Janet Walsh. Often it was dark when they finished and the journalism adviser, Dorothy Teal, made Larry, who had a car, drive Janet home even though she lived only two blocks away on Wedeking Avenue. Janet took a liking to Larry and hoped he would ask her to the junior prom. "I wanted to move up to the popular set,'' Janet said. "(Larry) was well-liked with that personality, and he was involved in journalism, president of the Concert Choir and in sports." Larry didn't come through, and Janet ended up going to the prom with Jim Pope.
That summer, Janet and some girlfriends attended a going-away swimming party for a classmate who was moving. Janet managed to get Larry to take her home, and they were a couple through most of their senior year at North.
Larry kept a busy pace in college. While dating Janet and maintaining a full courseload at Evansville College, he continued to work at the Sunday Courier & Press, essentially full time. Janet said the only time they could go out on dates was Sunday night because Larry covered games or worked in the office on Fridays and Saturdays. She often visited The Crescent, the school paper, between classes just to spend some time with him. He kept up his grades and the college tailored the school's first journalism degree for him. During the era, the Evansville Aces were an NCAA Division II powerhouse, winning national basketball titles in 1964 and '65. They were led by coach Arad McCutchan and star Jerry Sloan, who would go on to play and coach in the NBA.
Larry and Janet both finished college in March because Evansville was on a quarters system. They decided to get married in April to avoid the humid Evansville summer, but April 24, 1965, topped out in the 80s. Larry overslept and was late arriving at St. Lucas Church, where the Walshes had been members throughout Janet's life. But Janet's fretting about being left at the altar was for naught. They ceremony went off without any problems.
Janet expected to have time to get settled into their new house at 826 Alvord, an Evansville home they rented for $70 or $75 a month, Janet recalled later. But two weeks after finishing college, Janet got a job filling in for a teacher on maternity leave. Because of the job, Janet and Larry didn't take an immediate honeymoon. Janet never had flown, so they flew (in a thunderstorm) to St. Louis for the weekend.
That summer they took a full honeymoon in New York City.
Starting out, she was a full-time teacher while he worked at the Sunday Courier & Press. Larry enjoyed being provocative and attracting attention. High school basketball was big in the area and during the 1961-62 season, Evansville's Bosse High School had an outstanding team. But Larry consistently picked against the Bulldogs.
"So every week we Bosse kids would read Larry's column and get mad because he refused to acknowledge greatness," wrote Thom Mominee, a Bosse alumnus who worked for the Evansville newspapers and by the time of his April 2009 e-mail was in charge of human resources. "Bosse finished I believe 26-2 and won the state championship and avenged both losses in the tournament. … It probably was a very savvy way of gaining readership or maybe he just didn't like Bosse. Anyway, he was a great sport and pretty darned courageous because he accepted an invitation to a pep rally at Bosse during the state tournament where he was presented a big roll of bologna. He then spoke and he was very gracious and, not wanting to curse us, picked us not to win."
It wasn't long before Janet became pregnant and Michael Todd was born in 1967. They were close with the neighbors across the street, Rex and Ruth Powell, who loved to have Mike over. About this same time, Larry started Hoopla, a short-lived magazine about basketball, the first attempt at his dream of having his own publication.
Shortly after Michael was born, Larry's father, Jim, died in Memphis. Larry went to the funeral, although he never had been close to his father. "I always got the idea that he was very resentful," Janet said years later. But Mike's birth and the state basketball championship run of Larry's alma mater, North High, made for glorious days. Larry wrote a column for the paper as if a 6-day-old Mike were the author. In it, "Mike" predicted a regional championship for the Huskies. It was a family story that over the years would be exaggerated into Mike predicting the state championship. Mike received a stuffed dog signed by all of the Huskies.
Mike slid along the hardwood floors on Alvord, and often entertained across the street neighbors Rex and Ruth Powell with his childhood antics. They had a big dog he liked to play with. Brenda, the little girl next door, liked to play with Mike.
Four years after Mike was born, another son, Brett Andrew, in 1971, a date that would be prime in Larry's life.
While Brett was still a baby, the family moved to Hammond, Ind., near Chicago, where Larry became a sportswriter with the Hammond Times. Larry worked there for about four years, while often moonlighting as a substitute teacher.
In about 1975, he decided he could move closer to his dream of becoming a sports editor by taking a job at the Journal-Gazette in Fort Wayne, in northeast Indiana. Within about a year, the goal was achieved. Larry was sports editor.
The family bought its first house, and after a while another son was on the way. Jon Paul was born in 1978, and given Walsh family names. Janet's father was John Paul Walsh and Johns and Pauls dotted the family tree.
Larry had been a gambler for many years. In Fort Wayne, he began to lose control of it, losing his job and piling up debt without Janet's knowledge. Although he was fired in October 1978 from the Journal-Gazette, Larry landed a job with the Times-Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The plan was for Janet, Mike, Brett and Jon to follow at the end of the school year. But one night, Janet came in and told Mike and Brett she had signed papers to divorce Larry.
Larry had crossed a picket line to join the Times-Leader. The paper was in the midst of one of the most bitter strikes in newspaper history. "Those early days of the strike were difficult and those of us who were new to the business grew up real fast - both professionally and personally," wrote Dotty Martin, whom Larry hired as the paper's first female sports writer shortly after he arrived. "We had to dodge all kinds of obscenities from the picketers when entering and exiting the building and were forced to go to Scranton (about 40 minutes north) to socialize because it was just too dangerous for us to be out in public in the Wilkes-Barre area."
In an April 2009 e-mail, Martin, who was a 23-year-old native of the area when she joined the Times-Leader in November 1978, continued that she had learned a lot from Larry: "As I write this, can actually picture him sitting back in his chair with a pipe in his mouth (smoking was allowed in work environments in those days, too), shaking his head and smiling as he edited my work. I would stand behind him and watch him work his magic, making my writing sound better than I ever imagined it could."
But Larry's gambling problem persisted. Martin recalled in a second e-mail that he liked to frequent Pocono Downs, a local horse track. "As a matter of fact, I was working a Sunday night shift and he was supposed to come in that night to lay out the sports section," she wrote. "Midway through the shift, he called me (from the track) and told me he wasn't going to come in. I was in a sink or swim situation - and learned quickly how to lay out of the paper. It was probably the best way for me to learn, although at the time it was a little hairy."
Larry spent the next several years getting
-- and losing -- sports editing jobs across the country. He was in Biloxi, Miss., Shreveport, La., and Las Vegas, Nev., not lasting very long at any stint. He apparently began living with a woman in Pennsylvania, and later another woman, apparently named Vicky, in Las Vegas.
In 1984, Larry landed a job as executive sports editor at the News-Tribune in Fort Pierce, Fla. Larry was brought in above the sports editor, Kim Humphries, and took over a small staff that included golf writer Bill Woods, with whom Larry had worked many years earlier in Evansville. Larry won several awards at the News-Tribune.
In 1985, Pam Zaklin joined him. Larry had met Pam in Fort Wayne. He was friends with her husband, Sid. After Janet and Larry had split up and divorced in June 1979 and Pam and Sid did the same March 9, 1986, Larry and Pam had many phone conversations and once when he went to visit Sid, Larry spent the entire time with Pam. Pam agreed to come to Fort Pierce for a year at which point they would either split up or get married. In 1986, they got married.
Pam helped Larry get his life under control. She took over the finances and he cut out the gambling, although he still lost his job at the News-Tribune in 1988. After considering a job in Bluefield, W.Va., Larry decided he had a better idea. He'd start his own paper.
From his days with Hoopla, Larry had always dreamed of publishing his own paper. He achieved success with Prime Times, launched April 13, 1989, to coincide with Brett's birthday. The paper was geared to area residents who were 50 and over, and Larry first envisioned it coming out every other week. After working through that two-week cycle once, Larry scaled back to monthly publication.
Larry and Pam worked hard in those early days, selling the ads, producing the copy and handling the production, but Prime Times became a quick success. It was distributed for free in retirement communities and through racks in grocery stores and other locations. It grew to a circulation of about 17,000 and Larry and Pam started an annual Tourist Guide to capitalize on seasonal residents.
It seemed Larry had a radar device that sought out people from Indiana, be it Bill Woods at the News-Tribune or David Frommang, a Fort Pierce urologist whom Larry met through Prime Times. Brett remembers Larry always wearing a shirt that said "Evansville" at the airport because Larry hoped it would catch some Hoosiers' eye.
In 1993, Larry and Pam went to Hawaii to attend the wedding of Pam's daughter Tracey, a longtime resident of the islands who married Terry Valdez. The trip was a delight, full of scenery and bonding with Pam's daughters Tracey, Lynne and Beth.
Not long after returning from Hawaii, Larry was on the phone when he felt his left side give way. Pam came home a few minutes later and got Larry to the hospital. He had suffered a mild stroke and spent several days in intensive care as the hospital tried to get his blood pressure under control. Larry was an ornery patient, despite the presence of Pam and his son Mike. Larry twisted and turned to try to read the blood pressure gauge and continually threatened to leave, but the staff kept him in line enough to bring his blood pressure down.
Upon leaving the hospital, Larry gave up alcohol, which had been a staple of his evenings for years, and took medication to control his blood pressure. Soon, he lost weight and appeared to be as healthy as ever.
Larry's mother, Ruth, had been living with her daughter Gayle for many years, but as Ruth aged and Gayle had her own gambling-related financial troubles, Ruth became more than she could handle. Larry, who had achieved financial success through Prime Times, decided it would be best if she came to live in Florida.
Ruth lived with Larry and Pam for a few years before her falls and health concerns became too much for them. She needed round-the-clock attention, which was more than they could do while running their own business. In the spring of 1997, she moved to the Beverly Health & Rehabilitation Center in nearby Port St. Lucie. Larry visited her several times a week.
Larry long had a goal of getting his three boys and Pam's three daughters together for a holiday. He nearly did it at Christmas in 1996 when Brett, Jon and the girls came and celebrated at Beth's house in Royal Palm Beach. Mike and his wife, Jennifer, had to miss the occasion because Jennifer's mother, MaryEllen, was in the hospital. She died two days after Christmas.
For many years, Larry had hinted that he might like to run for office. He had become more and more interested in government through Prime Times. He wrote many government-oriented stories and worked with local interest groups. In the fall of 1997, he announced he was running for St. Lucie County Commission in the primary against incumbent Republican Gary Charles. Larry and Pam worked hard, raising money and gathering signatures to help him get on the ballot. Many involved with local causes supported him, and he had high hopes for his chances.
Mike and Jennifer made it for Christmas '97 as did Beth and her son Zachary and Pam's sisters, Patsy and Penny. But Brett, Jon, Lynne and Tracey couldn't make it.
Larry, Mike and Jennifer visited Ruth at the nursing home on Dec. 26.
"I hoped I'd never have to make this call,'' Larry said, telling Mike of Ruth's death. She died Dec. 29, 1997, just three days after Larry, Mike and Jennifer visited. Larry had seen her earlier on the day when she died. She would have been 88 in about a month. He had hoped she would live to see the 21st century.
Larry arranged for Ruth to be buried in Evansville at Locust Hill Cemetery, where much of her family rested. Larry arrived back home for the funeral on Jan. 4, his birthday. The viewing on Jan. 5 brought together many family members who hadn't seen each other in years. Frank attended, as did his daughter Tina, her husband, Gary Baack, and son Chase. Gayle was there, as where her children, Charlie, Ruth and Mary, and their families. Many friends of Larry's and students of Ruth's attended.
Larry, Pam, his sons and Mike's wife, Jennifer, had dinner that night with Bob Van Britson and his wife, Linda. The funeral was Jan. 6 at Locust Hill.
Larry got up early on April 25, 1998, which was unusual. He normally was a night person, sitting up watching sports or cowboy movies and periodically tapping his pipe on the ash tray. Pam remained in bed for about an hour before rising about 7. She found Larry and a pile of papers on the floor. Efforts to revive him were futile. Dr. Frommang, who came quickly after Pam's call, said a heart attack had taken him quickly.
Larry's death occurred on the weekend Prime Times' May issue was being readied for the printer. Mike, who lived in Tampa, came and wrote his father's obituary for the front page, quoting from Larry's columns. Larry would have been furious at the headline on his obituary in the Fort Pierce Tribune, which had dropped the "News" since he left the paper. It called Prime Times a "magazine." Larry always considered it a newspaper. The obituaries contained a few other errors, not all the fault of the papers. Some listed Larry's age as 54 because Pam, in a fog from the events of the day, had forgotten his correct age. One reported that he received a master's degree from Indiana University and wrote a book, Baseball's Black Power. The family is familiar with neither of these, which might have been resume enhancements to cover periods when he was out of work. Larry likely would have been proud that his death was mentioned in Editor & Publisher magazine and prompted an editorial praising his work in the Fort Pierce Tribune.
Fort Pierce Tribune (FL)
April 27, 1998
Larry K. Stephenson, 55, died April 25, 1998.
He was a native of Evansville, Ind., and a resident of Fort Pierce for 14 years.
Mr. Stephenson was publisher of Prime Times for the past 10 years and was the executive sports writer at the Tribune for several years. He was appointed to the St. Lucie County Citizens Budget Advisory Committee in 1996. He was a member of the St. Lucie County Republican Executive Committee, the St. Lucie County Waterfront Council, the Downtown Business Association of Fort Pierce,
the Backus Gallery, Heathcote Botanical Gardens and was on the board of directors of the Greyhound Adoption League of South Florida. He was a graduate of the Chamber of Commerce's Leadership St. Lucie.
Survivors include his wife, Pam Stephenson, of Fort Pierce; sons Mike Stephenson of Tampa, Brett Stephenson of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Jon Stephenson of Indiana; step-daughters Beth Roggin of Royal Palm Beach, Tracy Valdez of Waiannae, Hawaii, and Lynne Zalkin of Fort Wayne, Ind.; a brother, Frank Stephenson of Indianapolis, Ind.; a sister, Gayle Burnes of Princeton, Ind.; and a grandson.
SERVICES: Friends may call from 5 to 8 p.m. today at Haisley-Hobbs Funeral Home, Fort Pierce. A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. at the funeral home chapel. Burial will be in White City Cemetery.
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