John Clay

John Clay: Remembering Transy's 'treasure,' Harry Stephenson

Harry Stephenson, right, with C.M. Newton, left, and former Transy golfer Michael Ray.
Harry Stephenson, right, with C.M. Newton, left, and former Transy golfer Michael Ray.

Every year, students at Transylvania University would line up to challenge Harry Stephenson in badminton.

Thing was, no one could.

"Once he got in his 70s, 80s, people were still trying to beat him around here," Don Lane, the former Transylvania basketball coach and athletics director, said Wednesday, "and they still couldn't beat him."

"I remember playing him in badminton when he was 58," said Jack Ebel, the current Transylvania AD, "and I couldn't beat him."

It's hard to beat an institution, after all. And when it came to the heart and soul of Transylvania University athletics, there was no bigger institution than Harry Stephenson, who passed away Tuesday night at age 95.

The Nicholas County native and Henry Clay High School graduate enrolled at Transy in 1936. And he never really left.

Stephenson coached Transy baseball and basketball. He was athletic director for 20 years and assistant to the athletic director after that. Until just eight years ago, he was head golf coach.

Stephenson was also a noted basketball official and baseball umpire. He started the Bluegrass Umpiring Association and the Bluegrass Basketball Association for referees. Until recently, he kept the clock for Henry Clay's boys' basketball games.

"Transylvania and Lexington lost a great treasure," said KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett on Wednesday via Twitter. "Great friend and mentor to many."

"He's truly a Transylvania treasure," said Brian Lane, Transy's current basketball and golf coach. "He impacted every single person who spent time with him."

After being basketball coach at Transy from 1948-51, it was Stephenson who hired C.M. Newton for the job, who recruited Lee Rose to be Newton's successor, who was instrumental in hiring Don Lane after that.

"He was someone you could go talk to and ask their opinion on things," said Don Lane, Transy's head coach for 26 years before turning the job over to his son. "I mean, he spanned seven decades of students and faculty and he always had Transy at heart in everything he did."

"He was my adviser when I was a student," said Ebel, a 1977 Transy graduate. "He was one of my mentors. And I wasn't alone."

"He practically raised me there in McAlister Auditorium," said Brian Lane. "I used to live for snow days growing up, so I could go play badminton with him or be in his volleyball class or just go to his office and listen to him tell stories.

"When I played on the golf team, before we had cable, on the road we'd just go to Harry's room and listen to him tell stories."

Now, they are telling stories about Harry. Brian Lane talks about him being frugal, about how Stephenson had a "bank vault" in his office to safe-keep golf balls.

When Transy made the NAIA National Golf Tournament in 1990, Brian Lane got authorization from the AD — his father, Don — to purchase six new golf shirts to wear in the tournament.

"When he saw those, he about died," said Brian Lane. "He said, 'Where did you get the money for those?' Then he saw the one that had District Coach of the Year on the sleeve. He wore that shirt proudly for years."

Don Lane talked about how even in his 80s, Stephenson could drive a golf ball down the middle of the fairway.

"And then gripe that it didn't go farther," said Lane.

Jack Ebel talked of how Stephenson could be blunt, but in a way in which you knew he cared.

"It was just one of those relationships you treasure as a student," Ebel said. "It's always been my goal to have those same kind of relationships."

"He taught me how to be competitive in whatever you coach," Brian said. "He could say something that would just be as honest as could be, sometimes negative, but there would be a smile afterwards."

The Friday before Transylvania's men's golf team left for its conference tournament, Brian Lane visited Stephenson for what he knew would probably be the final time.

Lane informed his former coach that Transy was now ranked fourth nationally in Division III men's golf.

"He gave me a look like how did that happen," said Brian. "I told him, 'Coaching.' He said, 'The hell it was. It was recruiting.'"

Brian Lane told the story via phone from outside Orlando, Fla., where his team is playing in the national tournament.

Each member of the Transy golf team is wearing a ribbon in remembrance of Harry Stephenson.