John L. Stephens
John Stephens has many achievements and attributes to be remembered by, but he can perhaps best be characterized by a statement he often made that echoes Will Rogers’ famous line - “I never met a student I didn’t like.” John L. Stephens was born on July 8, 1932 in Plant City, Florida. After graduating from Plant City High School in 1951, he attended the University of Florida and earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural education in 1955. Having also been enrolled in the ROTC program, John served a two-year hitch in the Army and left with the rank of First Lieutenant. In 1957 he was hired to teach agriculture at Bushnell High School. The original plan was to be there for only one year, but John and his wife Ethel fell in love with Sumter County and its people and didn’t want to leave. John earned his master’s degree in education at UF in 1961, while he was working in Bushnell. In addition to being a highly effective teacher, he excelled in getting the most from his students in FFA competitions. John’s chapter was named best chapter in the state, and his students included 38 state winners, three Southeast Regional winners, 13 national winners, 12 American Farmer Degree recipients, 88 State Farmer Degree recipients, one Star State Farmer of Florida, and seven state FFA officers.
After 23 years of outstanding achievement as a teacher and mentor, John moved on to become county vocational education director in 1980. During this time he also became interested in political office and was twice elected to the Sumter Board of County Commissioners. In 1992 John took a well-deserved retirement, although he continued to serve as a county commissioner until 1994 and served many years after that as a volunteer adult education teacher.
John’s achievements won him many honors over the years. In 1971 he received the Honorary American Farmer Degree from the National FFA, and in 1978 he was Sumter County’s Teacher of the Year. Also in 1978, John won the Sumter County Farm Bureau’s Outstanding Service Award, and he was the Sumter County Cattlemen’s Association Man of the Year in 1982. John was Sumter County’s Adult Education Teacher of the Year in 1984, but perhaps the greatest recognition of all came in 2005. In August of that year more than 500 people gathered at a banquet in Bushnell to pay tribute to John and Ethel. Even though it had been 25 years since he had taught, the crowd was filled with his former FFA members. One of his state champion string bands even reunited to provide the musical entertainment. As the evening progressed, they received honor after honor. There were proclamations in honor of John’s service from the Sumter County School Board and the Sumter Board of County Commissioners. There was a resolution from the Governor and Cabinet of the State of Florida in honor of a lifetime of service and accomplishment. The University of Florida presented John with its Distinguished Service Award. But the culmination of the evening was the presentation of a $60,000 John and Ethel Stephens Scholarship Endowment in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communication at the University of Florida. All the money was raised by former students and community and business leaders and was well beyond the original fundraising goal of $20,000. John passed away in 2008, but his life exemplified everything associated with FFA – character, leadership, hard work, cooperation, humility, integrity, and much more.
John Stephens was inducted into the Florida FFA Hall of Fame September 13, 2008.