Dr. Ruth Stephens made history clear

Jim Tumblin
History and Mysteries

Lindsey Nelson (1919-1995) was perhaps best known nationally as an American sportscaster who had a long career as a play-by-play announcer for college football and the New York Mets baseball team. However, many Vols for life will remember him at a much earlier time when he announced UT football games for the Vol network.

Nelson was a 1941 University of Tennessee graduate who served as a captain in the U.S. Army in World War II in North Africa and in Europe. One of his history professors at UT was Dr. Ruth Stephens. He kept up correspondence with her while overseas and in one long letter he described things he had witnessed and places he had been.

Dr. Stephens wrote back to say how furious she was that she was not there in his place to witness history being made. She wrote, “Just think what value such experiences would have (been) for me.” Nelson interpreted that to mean that she felt he did not have the background to absorb what he was seeing. He agreed and realized he should have paid closer attention in class.

Those who remember Dr. Stephens’ civic club presentations, radio broadcasts and later her television commentaries will recall that she “told it like it is (was)” and “minced no words” as she discussed world events and the implications they held.

Dr. Ruth Stephens (1889-1975) taught both history and international relations at UT for 35 years. Even after her retirement, she delivered from 100 to 300 speeches a year to civic and fraternal groups, in addition to her regular TV commentary.  Photograph courtesy of the McClung Historical Collection, Knoxville Journal Collection
Dr. Ruth Stephens (1889-1975) taught both history and international relations at UT for 35 years. Even after her retirement, she delivered from 100 to 300 speeches a year to civic and fraternal groups, in addition to her regular TV commentary. Photograph courtesy of the McClung Historical Collection, Knoxville Journal Collection

Ruth Stephens was born in Kevil near Paducah in western Kentucky on Oct. 2, 1889, and received her B.A., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees at Indiana University. For a while she taught high school in Paducah (1921-24).

Dr. Stephens joined the University of Tennessee faculty in 1925, became the first woman in the UT College of Liberal Arts to obtain a full professorship and would eventually serve a total of 35 years there. Later, her interest in international relations led to a Carnegie Fellowship for World Peace and she took a one year leave of absence (1931) to study international law at George Washington University and at the Library of Congress in Washington.

Many students had Dr. Stephens for two subjects during their undergraduate years since she taught both history and international relations. Carson Brewer, longtime Knoxville News Sentinel reporter and author of several books on local history, was one of her students. In an article titled “How Long Do I Remember the Personal Wrath of Ruth Stephens” (Knoxville News Sentinel, Dec. 25, 1983) he wrote:

“She didn’t teach history. She relived it. She made you go with her back through those wars and intrigues that led us to where we are. She always used the big wall map behind her in reliving those marching armies and changing national boundaries. She peppered the map with small blows with her pointer.

“We went with her and that pointer with Napoleon into Russia. We plotted with her and Elizabeth I. She and we warred with the Chinese Communists, the Kuomintang and the Japanese all over the map of China.

“Maybe we did not greatly like Mao Tse-tung, but we learned to respect him and the peasant communists he took with him on the long march across China in the middle 1930s. Dr. Stephens’ enunciation was so nearly perfect that every word was as clear as boxcar letters. She also colored every word with her feelings—scorn, love, admiration, humor.”

When she reached mandatory retirement age in 1960, she hardly slowed down. Civic and fraternal organizations all over East Tennessee asked her to speak and she made from 100 to 300 speeches a year. She also had a regular radio program until television arrived and afforded her the perfect platform to express her always enlightened views on world affairs. Her television program “The History Behind the News” was among the most popular weekly commentaries of its time.

When there was sentiment for withdrawing from the United Nations, she spoke to the combined meeting of the Women’s Press and Author’s Club and the Tennessee Pen Women in Gatlinburg and voiced this cogent opinion:

“I shudder when I hear people say the United States should withdraw. … If there were no UN, we would be seeking frantically to create one. The world needs the UN. From the platform, in the corridors and cloakrooms, our representatives can detect the currents that exist in 111 member states. Where else can we gain such information? How else can we shape our policy so that we can grasp even the smallest opportunity to advance world peace?”

After a lifetime of imparting knowledge to university students and extending her positive influence into the community, Dr. Ruth Stephens passed away on Dec. 15, 1975, at 86 years of age at University Hospital of an apparent heart attack. After services at Mann’s Mortuary conducted by Rev. Julian Spitzer, she was interred in Highland Memorial Cemetery.

During her lifetime she had received many awards for her service: Knoxville Woman of the Year (Beta Sigma Phi, 1940), Faculty Member of the Year (Volunteer Year Book, 1952), Outstanding Service in Protecting Our Constitutional Republic (Daughters of the American Revolution, 1954), and the Outstanding Educator Award (Greater Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, 1969).

Her memory lives on at UT in two active memorial funds: the Ruth Stephens Scholarship Fund for undergraduate political science majors with particular interest in the area of international politics and the Ruth Stephens International Relations Award Fund, which supports an annual cash award to an undergraduate political science major whose principal interest is in the field of international relations.

Dr. Jim Tumblin’s latest book, Fountain City: Those Who Made a Difference, is available at Page’s Pharmacy, Pratt’s Country Store, Long’s Pharmacy, the East Tennessee History Center, Union Avenue Books and online.

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