GARNER — Back in 1965, Tim Stevens – the son of a new service-minded small-town town alderman first elected two years prior – danced a short minuet with a girl in the seventh-grade school play.
The town was Garner, where Stevens still lives. The venue would become the Garner Performing Arts Center, where Stevens would one day book Broadway stars to perform. The girl? She would become Stevens’ wife.
And last week, the town announced that Stevens had come full circle again: he will be presented with Garner’s most prestigious service award, one named for his father and 10-term alderman, James R. Stevens.
Stevens said he was humbled yet excited, and very appreciative. He bristled at being compared to his late father, a man Stevens said did much more in the community than he has.
“It’s hard to conceive anyone putting me on that level. Daddy was so community-minded,” Stevens said. “We were kind of raised with the idea that community service was just something that you did. You just do it.”
Stevens writes about prep sports for the News & Observer, which owns the Garner Cleveland Record.
Stevens will receive the the James R. Stevens Service to Garner Award August 19, 26 years after its first iteration was first named after and presented to his father, an alderman serving 20 years between 1963 and 1987. The Hall of Fame prep sportswriter earned the honor in large part for decades of dedication to enhancing the performing arts in Garner, along with work through his church, Aversboro Road Baptist.
“He’s very deserving. He’s given back to the community for most of his life,” said Mayor Ronnie Williams, who said he has known Stevens his entire life. “All the winners are good, but it’s good to have a native of Garner be the recipient.”
(Last year’s recipient, Martha Bryan Liles, also is a lifelong Garner-area resident.)
Promoting the Arts
Stevens said he got his start in the arts through his church, where he has written a number of plays. He said he really began to gain a fuller appreciation for the arts, their influence, and their enhancement of quality of life about 25 years ago and hasn’t looked back.
A crowning achievement for Stevens has been starting Broadway Voices, a series that brings a few stars per year to GPAC for solo performances. The United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County presented Stevens the Individual Supporter of the Arts Award after its first year in 2011. It has become a Garner arts scene staple.
Stevens wanted to set a high bar, one that reached well beyond what most thought could be brought to Garner.
“I think we’ve done it,” Stevens said. “You want to do it better than anyone thinks could happen. You want people to say ‘I can’t believe we have that here.’”
Broadway Voices, now through four seasons, serves as just the tip of the iceberg for Stevens’ arts contributions to the town. He has brought an array of performers into his church and other venues, including several who participated in a Salute the Troops event this year.
“Tim is probably one of the most creative people that I’ve ever worked with locally,” said Faye Gardner, a member of Stevens’ church who has often worked with him and gone on mission trips with him. “And he’s always one of the most unselfish, giving people that I know. He never wants credit for what he does.”
For Stevens, what makes something like a play special is the power of something created and imagined to produce real impact on the world.
“What is amazing to me about the arts is just the way they can impact peoples’ lives,” Stevens said. “Jean Valjean (the protagonist of Les Miserables) never existed and never was, but he impacted lives because what we see through the arts lets you understand yourself and life better.”
When he was about five years old, Stevens moved from the farm near Cleveland School Road and N.C. 50 that had been in the family for about 200 years. His family relocated in what was then a new subdivision – Forest Hills.
“It was a real small town,” Stevens said. “If I went into the Piggly Wiggly, everyone either knew me or knew my people.”
Aside from being in elementary school with him, his wife Donna also lived a few doors down from Stevens, one that he lived in until he married and moved out.
For a one-town man, Stevens attended a lot of different schools as the town began to grow. He moved from Garner Elementary to Vandora Springs Elementary, which opened when he was in second grade.
By seventh grade, the Garner Elementary building had become a junior high, so he returned there. He attended high school where North Garner Middle School is now located for two years. Then the current high school opened up in 1968, his junior year.
While in high school, Stevens needed to get a job, he said, because his father “was a believer that when a boy got to 14 or 15, a boy ‘ought to take care of his own.”
‘The most important level’
Stevens found work covering ballgames for the Raleigh Times in 1967. He’s been paying his bills by writing about sports ever since.
He caught on as a part-time writer in 1970 and was hired full time in 1975. In the meantime he took classes at North Carolina State University, then came more classes at W.W. Holding Technical Institute, the precursor to Wake Tech, and eventually at satellite night classes through North Carolina Wesleyan. He earned an associate’s degree in accounting and a bachelor’s in English and business administration. But a sportswriter he remained.
Ultimately afternoon papers declined nationally, and the Raleigh Times ceased publication in 1989. Stevens shifted over to the News & Observer, which had owned the Times since 1955.
Stevens has covered sports at all levels. But given the choice of which to cover, he said his choice was easy – and perhaps odd to some.
“I felt like (high school) was the most important level of competition,” said Stevens. “It won’t affect my life who wins the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl, the World Series. But what’s taught through high school athletics affects my life every day...High school sports were developed to create better citizens for a democracy.”
He also likes the chance to tell stories that don’t always get told, and about people who don’t already have fame.
“I get to say nice things about people that don’t always have nice things said about them,” Stevens said.
Asked of his most memorable stories - out of thousands upon thousands - Stevens cited a few. Last spring he wrote about former East Wake and UNC-Wilmington pitcher Rusty Wagstaff’s upbeat attitude despite a sudden battle with sepsis that cost him his hands and legs. In 2010 he looked back at Ligon High legend William Dean “Pat” White, one of the greatest multi-sport athletes the area has ever produced who died at 19 of cancer in 1964. Also in 2010 he wrote a about a series of love letters written to a crush by an incredibly shy Broughton basketball star and future NBA legend Pete Maravich.
In addition to newspaper articles, he has penned a book about the history of high school sports in the state as well as contributed to others. He also helped establish the record books for the North Carolina High School Athletics Association.
Stevens has been named to the National Federation of State High School Associations Hall of Fame and the NCHSAA Hall of Fame, and was named among the top 10 sports beat reporters in the country in 2006.
But when Stevens steps away from work, he doesn’t spend much time with sports. Instead, he is, as Williams calls him, a “family man” who has three grown children. He prefers to focus more on his pet arts projects. Gardner lauded his principles, going so far as to say he doesn’t bring in musical groups – secular or religious – that don’t also have sound principles.
Williams also praises Stevens’ genuine and positive demeanor.
“One thing about him, when I see him, I’ll ask him how he’s doing. And he’ll be quick to say ‘excellent, excellent,’ He’s always very upbeat,” Williams said.
Stevens said the first thing about earning the award that struck him was a very humbling feeling.
“When something like this happens, you immediately think of all the people you know that are more deserving,” Stevens said.
Ultimately, though, he appreciates being deemed worthy of the honor.
“Just to think someone thinks you’ve done something good is a little overwhelming.”
Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland