For the Love of Liberal Arts

John “J.S.” and Carolyn Stephens’ long-time support of liberal arts education in Milwaukee inspired a gift that ensures their message will continue to impact lives for years to come.

Retired teacher and administrator John “J.S.” Stephens’ six-decade career at USM began inauspiciously. After graduating from Amherst College and earning his master’s in teaching from Harvard University in 1957, the Vermont native taught for one year at a public high school in Topsfield, Massachusetts. The experience left him underwhelmed, so he began to look for a job at an independent school. In 1958, he was contacted by Warren Seyfert, then-headmaster of Milwaukee Country Day School, which had an opening for a history teacher. Despite having never been to Milwaukee and not knowing a soul there, Stephens accepted. “I thought, ‘Oh what the heck, it’s only one year and they have a baseball team,’” he said. “It was a good decision, as it turned out.” J.S. has held numerous roles over the course of his USM career, including history teacher, economics teacher, director of admissions, head of Upper School, coach of the National Champion Federal Challenge team, as well as many other coaching and advising roles.

J.S. met his wife, Carolyn, during his first year at MCDS while she was studying English and theatre at Milwaukee Downer College. (USM’s predecessor school, Milwaukee Downer Seminary, was the high school division of MDC before it became an independent institution in 1910.) They married in 1961 and the first of their four children was born in 1963. Although neither J.S. nor Carolyn were from the area, the thought of leaving Milwaukee never persuaded them. “University School is so wonderful; why would we leave?” said Carolyn. “All four of our children were USM students from ages 3 to 18, and we were both very happy with our careers and work.” Carolyn held a variety of careers, including managing the adult education program at Alverno College; executive director of the Milwaukee Ballet; running her own business; and teaching at Concordia University Wisconsin, while she earned her Ph.D. In the 1970s, Carolyn spearheaded the efforts to preserve the Milwaukee Downer College and Seminary buildings by completing the process of having them listed in the National Register of Historic Places, thus saving them from demolition.

As J.S. and Carolyn approached their retirement years and beyond, they began thinking about how they could give back to their alma maters that shaped their lives and which they valued. “When we started examining our lives, we felt that liberal arts education is what we’ve worked for all our lives, and that developed our deep roots at USM and Milwaukee Downer College,” said Carolyn. Working with USM’s planned giving advisor, J.S. and Carolyn established a charitable remainder uni-trust (CRUT) to support their four children while also benefiting USM and three liberal arts universities, as well as their church. Upon maturation, the Stephens’ gift will establish an endowed fund that will provide a new scholarship for qualifying Upper School students. Two other funds named in honor of J.S. are already in existence at USM, established through the generosity of other community members. One is a full-tuition scholarship and the other supports professional development for faculty.

“We feel that by supporting these causes, while supporting our children—three of whom teach at independent schools—our influence can continue long after we’re gone,” said J.S. “We will help fund the schools, the schools (and our children) will educate future students, and those students will go forth and bring light to the world. That’s how we will spread our message.”

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