Former AP communications chief Larry Stephens dies

Larry Stephens, who helped usher in new era of technology at AP, dies at age 71

Associated Press
Former AP communications chief Larry Stephens dies
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This photo taken in May 2012 shows Larry Stephens. Stephens, who helped The Associated Press usher in …

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Larry W. Stephens, who helped The Associated Press usher in a new era of technology from old-style teletype machines to modern-day satellite dishes and high speed delivery, died Friday after a battle with cancer.

Stephens, 71, was the longtime chief of communications for AP in Washington.

He began his 34-year career at the company as a technician in New York in 1968. Within months, he was promoted to assistant chief of communications and a short time later, in 1971, Stephens left New York to take the helm of the AP's communications operation in the nation's capital.

Stephens, known for his serious and no-nonsense demeanor, was described by colleagues as the go-to-guy for fixing just about anything.

"Larry was the ultimate AP guy, the man who made the Washington bureau run," said former Washington bureau chief Walter Mears. "When something needed to be done, he made sure it happened."

Jonathan Wolman, editor and publisher of The Detroit News and a former Washington AP chief of bureau, remembered Stephens for making the job of a journalist easier. "We didn't need to know anything about analog or digital just so long as Larry did."

Born in Carrollton, Mo., Stephens grew up on a farm. He served in the Air Force from 1960 to 1968 as a communications specialist before joining the AP. He earned praise during his career from colleagues, supervisors and AP members — all extolling his dedication, loyalty and drive.

In 1993, AP President Lou Boccardi applauded Stephens on his 25 years with the company, telling Stephens that his name "has become a synonym for getting it done, on time and with a smile for the member."

In 1999, Stephens won the company's Gramling Spirit Award. He was honored for his three decades of service as the backbone of AP communications in Washington.

A former AP Washington bureau chief, Sandy Johnson, recalled Stephens standing nearby each election night, just out of sight, with his arms crossed and poised to pounce in the event of any technological mishap.

"Because of Larry's diligence and IT skills, the technology never let us down," said Johnson. "I always felt better knowing he was there — an angel on our shoulders."

Communications colleagues remembered him for his willingness to mentor and guide each new crop of AP technology staffers.

"He loved to teach the young techs," said Mark Olchowy, deputy director of support in Washington. "He would teach anything to anybody who asked."

Outside of family and work, Stephens enjoyed fishing in a creek off the Potomac River and during annual trips to Canada.

He and his wife, Judy, took 41 cruises. He got to know the captain on the ships and always had a gift for them, a handcrafted wooden pen and pencil set.

Stephens took up woodwork after his retirement in 2002. He crafted about 1,800 pens from a wide variety woods, including cherry from the family farm in Missouri, and gave them all away.

He also made wood toys, from helicopters to jeeps to grasshoppers, to be distributed overseas by church missions. Some are in Haiti. A few months before his death, Stephens said he regretted that he would be unable to finish the last 10 of 50 toys he had promised for distribution to children in Africa.

After removing the stain from an old altar rail in his church that was no longer in use, he discovered that it was made from a beautiful walnut. He said it was too precious to use for toys, so he fashioned crosses and pens for members of the congregation. "He has done the Lord's work," his wife said.

Stephens battled back from Hodgkin's lymphoma and returned to work part-time in 2000 before retiring two years later to spend more time with his family. He was hospitalized in March with lung cancer.

Stephens is survived by Judy, his wife of 48 years; their daughter, Carrie Stephens Case; her husband, Scott, and grandsons David and Stephen.

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