Friday, May 9th, 2014...12:36 pm
After 50 years of faithfulness as a church organist/pianist, woman plays on
I have heard older people say this younger generation just doesn’t have the same drive or desire to conquer obstacles as their generation did. I may have even said that a few times myself.
And then I met Kathryn Smith Stephens. The successes she has accumulated in her life are enough to make the achievements of my generation and those that have come afterward pale in comparison. We just don’t measure up.
Stephens, who just turned 80, has a bachelor’s degree in pre-med (biology), a master’s in public affairs, a medical technology certificate, is a retired licensed embalmer, a licensed practical nurse, a retired real estate agent, was the first black licensed nursing home administrator in Kentucky, is an author and publisher, and dabbles in interior design and photography.
And, in addition to all that, for the past 50 years, she has served as pianist, organist and music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church, 541 Jefferson Street.
“If I hadn’t found a plaque, I wouldn’t have known I’d been here for 50 years,” Stephens said last week while sitting in the church sanctuary. “The whole family is coming and I just hope the police department doesn’t have to come over.”
She laughed. So did I. We both knew there wasn’t much chance of that.
Her father was the Rev. T.H. Smith who pastored Shiloh Baptist Church for 38 years. Her mother, Helen Smith, died when Stephens, their 11th child, was 14.
Her siblings included three ministers, a University of Kentucky administrator, a teacher and speech pathologist in Fayette County schools, and an associate general director of the YMCA. One of the ministers was also co-owner of Smith & Smith Funeral Home.
“We were never compared with each other or anyone else,” Stephens said. “We were only compared with ourselves. They taught us in the very beginning who we were supposed to depend on.”
A vibrant woman who exercises daily, Stephens is the widow of Dr. H.A. Stephens, a local physician who founded Stephens Nursing Home, a 100-bed facility on Georgetown Street. She met him while she was working as a medical technologist in the laboratory at St. Joseph Hospital, when it was on Second Street.
Her plans had been to become a doctor, but after graduating from Virginia Union University, she enrolled in the med tech program to earn enough money to go on to medical school. After meeting her future husband, her plans got sidelined.
“Instead of medicine, I went into healthcare administration,” she said. “It was a nice sideline. I have three girls. That is my crowning achievement.
“I’ve been so blessed with parents and a beautiful husband and a wonderful family.”
After she married she earned her license to run the nursing home, which the couple had owned for 30 years, selling it a few years before her husband retired from private practice because of illness. He died in 1987.
At age 57, Stephens enrolled in embalming school, and became an embalmer for Smith & Smith Funeral Home, in which her brother, the Rev. Horace R. Smith Sr., was part owner. Smith pastored Pilgrim for six decades.
It was that brother who asked Stephens to help out one Sunday evening at his church and she has been there ever since.
That is a long time to stay in one place, especially seeing how much music has changed in the church, from hymns to contemporary gospel.
“Change comes,” she said. “Music changes. Fifty years ago, I played What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and if I want to play it again, I’m going to. But I like to be in the middle of the road. I’ve been able to move with it.
“I’ve known people who played this long,” she said, “but I don’t know if they have played in the same place.”
Nelda Stephens Jackson said her mother has had great success with the choirs she has directed, regardless of the personalities involved.
“She carries a smile and a quick wit,” Jackson said. “She cuts things off before they get started. She can get anyone to do anything. She has that gift.”
The Rev. Gerald Smith, historian and pastor at Pilgrim for 21/2 years, said Stephens “has a sincere, sweet and gifted spirit. She embodies faithfulness.
“We start at 10:45 a.m. and I know she will strike up the organ at 10:45,” he said. “I appreciate that.
“She does everything with a certain amount of dignity and it radiates through the church and the community.”
Stephens said none of that is her doing, giving credit instead to God and her mother.
And, as if she needed one more thing to do, she is about to publish her second book. The first one, Wait! Make Sure I Am Dead, was self-published in 2009 to answer questions she had had posed to her about the embalming process.
“I took about a year off and studied publishing at home,” she said. “Then I set up Kathryn Stephens Agency and published it myself.”
Her second book, Embracing Your Sunrise, is in the final stages of editing. She said it is about having a new chance to get things right with each sunrise.
“It will go into details about things people have gone through and how they’ve gotten around it,” she said. “I set a goal that before I turned 80, that book will be ready to go. I made it.”
With that goal accomplished, what does she have planned for her retirement?
“I don’t look that far ahead,” she said. “I am embracing my sunrise. Each day is going to bring me something.
“I had planned to announce my retirement Sunday,” she said. “But the man upstairs said not yet. So, I’m going to wait.”