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Remembering Otis Stephens

Finally, we close our newsletter on a sad note, marking the death of Otis Stephens, a professor who overcame a number of hurdles and affected so many people so profoundly for so many years. The following is a tribute that was shared with the political science community across the country.

Otis Stephens (1936-2016)

Otis StephensAt a time when the world needs more people like him, we lost a valiant and gentle soul in Otis Stephens, a truly remarkable scholar, teacher, mentor, and person. His obituary provides the outline of a life well lived. Otis Hammond Stephens Jr. was born in East Point, Georgia, September 20, 1936, to Otis and Margaret Stephens. He departed this life December 2, 2016, in Statesboro, Georgia. Blind from birth due to the genetic disorder retinitis pigmentosa, his parents created an environment for success, curiosity, and intellectual rigor that characterized his life.

Otis attended public schools before transferring to the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon where he graduated valedictorian of his class at the age of 16. A gifted pianist, he enrolled at the University of Georgia and paid his way through college by tuning pianos and playing in the dance band. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science in 1957 and a Master of Arts in Political Science a year later. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He earned a PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1963 and a JD from the University of Tennessee in 1983. In 1975-76, he was awarded the Russell Sage Residency in Law and Social Science at Harvard Law School as a post-doctoral scholar.

In 1962, he embarked on an academic career as a constitutional law scholar by accepting an academic appointment at Georgia Southern College, now University, and immediately became one of the most popular professors on campus. Indeed, the 1966 yearbook at GSC was dedicated to him by the senior class. In 1967, he accepted an appointment at the University of Tennessee in the Department of Political Science and dedicated the next 45 years to his students, profession, and community, retiring in 2012. His popularity followed him to Knoxville. Over the years, in addition to his stellar work in the classroom, he served a number of administrative positions in the university. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters, he authored, co-authored, or edited six books in his field, most significantly, American Constitutional Law, now in its sixth edition and a leading textbook in the field. He ultimately had a joint appointment in the UT College of Law.

Otis Stephens made the national news for being blind and shooting a hole-in-one at the golf course. It’s a great story, but nothing compared with the man himself and the rest of his life. The Supreme Court cited his scholarship. He was admitted to the Supreme Court Bar as well. He was president of the American Council of the Blind. He fought tirelessly for equal rights for all people. He had a fierce commitment to social justice, which was always present just beneath the mild, slightly formal southern manner that was his style. He was full of love, and he mentored with his heart as much as his wisdom.

Otis’ extensive public service included work with the UT Law Clinic and numerous organizations in service of citizens with disabilities. Notably he served as president of the American Council of the Blind from 1987-89, president of the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC) from 1979-1983, and was a trustee of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) from 1987-99. In 1981, he was appointed to the Governor’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and served a five-year term. He was the recipient of the 2001 Migel Medal awarded by the AFB, the highest honor in the blindness field, for his work significantly improving the lives of people with vision loss. He was a tireless advocate for ultimate passage of the American with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Otis Stephens would hate to be put on a pedestal. He saw that kind of thing as a close cousin of being pitied, and recoiled from that as an affront to recognizing people’s true humanity and equality. He was beloved by many, and with good reason. He fought for a better world. He loved the people around him. He taught generations of students that law and justice are not at all the same, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from using law to demand and secure a more just society.

He was preceded in death by his first wife Linda Duren Stephens, mother of his daughters, whom he married in 1960, and his second wife Mary Torpey Stephens. He is survived by his daughters Ann Stephens (Allen) Henderson of Statesboro, Georgia, and, Carol Stephens (Kevin) Frazier of Knoxville, Tennessee, and seven remarkable grandchildren: Caroline Greer Henderson, Katherine Lee Henderson, Grace Elizabeth Frazier, Elizabeth Stephens Henderson, Annie Laura Frazier, Charli Monroe Frazier, and William Clark Henderson, Statesboro, Georgia. In addition, he leaves behind countless students whose lives he enriched and broad panoply of people from all walks of life who never met him nor know his name, but whose lives were improved by his activism.

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