In the Mountains: The long legacy of John and Jane Stephenson

John B. Stephenson and Jane Baucom Stephenson have left their mark on Lees-McRae both individually and as a couple

You have probably attended an event, talk, or musical performance hosted by the college’s Stephenson Center for Appalachia, but how much do you know about the eponymous Stephenson family? To leave a legacy sometimes means that your work extends far beyond your physical reach, touching and impacting the lives of many who have never been able to interact with you in person. This is certainly the case for John B. Stephenson, for whom the center is named, and his wife Jane Baucom Stephenson, who founded the New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW).

Lovers of Appalachia and its people, the Stephensons’ dedication to improving the lives of those in their community has impacted more people than they could have ever imagined. Their individual journeys with Lees-McRae trace back decades and their impacts are not stopping anytime soon.

After growing up in Banner Elk and graduating from Lees-McRae in 1957, Jane was hired as the assistant to then President of the Edgar Tufts Memorial Association, Marshall S. Woodson. It was here that she and John met when he took a job as a faculty member in the history department in 1961.

John found himself at Lees-McRae after earning a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from William and Mary in 1955 and a master’s degree in Sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1961. Although he was slow to warm to the quiet solitude and slower way of life he found here in Banner Elk, he soon fell in love with the small mountain community and the people who lived in it, not least of all Jane. The pair married not long after meeting during John’s first year on the job.

Together the couple fostered a deep love of Appalachia and grew a desire to give back to their community. John remained a faculty member in the history department until 1964 when he returned to UNC-Chapel Hill to pursue his doctorate. Although his initial desire was to return to Banner Elk following graduation from his doctoral program, his path instead led elsewhere. Regardless, the research he conducted during his doctoral program strengthened his legacy as a passionate expert on all things Appalachia.

In the introduction of his doctoral dissertation, “Shiloh: A Mountain Community,” published in 1968, John wrote of his love for Appalachia and the motivation behind his doctoral research and work, which sought to address some of the institutional failings of the region.

“My interest in the mountains has not always been so problem-centered. In fact, I, like many people raised in and near the Appalachians, was not so aware that we had such problems until someone informed me. I had always thought of the mountains as a fine place to visit and an even better place to take up residence, except that I couldn’t afford to live there. Only later did I realize that I wasn’t the only person who could not afford to live there—many of the people living there couldn’t afford it either…In truth, I still think of the mountains as a corner of heaven first and a national disgrace second. And I think of the mountain people as good, kind, rough, gentle friends before I think of them as poverty cases, social problems, or flies on the nation’s face.”

Although John’s tenure at Lees-McRae ended in 1964, his work continued to benefit the people of this area for the rest of his career and life. After working as a faculty member at the University of Kentucky for a number of years, John found himself at another Kentucky institution, Berea College, where he became the seventh president of the institution on July 3, 1984.

The John B. Stephenson Center for Appalachia

Throughout his career as president of Berea College John made impressive strides and improved the institution immensely before his death in 1994 at the age of 57. Although many have agreed he had so much left to give to the people and communities of Appalachia, the impact he made throughout his life has become that of legend.

At the time of his passing The Lexington Herald ran a memorial story reflecting on John’s life and career. In the article, then Berea College Trustee Wilma Dykeman said this of her colleague: “Stephenson knew the poetry and the poverty, the possibilities and the politics of Appalachia, and he helped each to be stronger and better.”

His impact was felt so strongly throughout the Southern Appalachian region that it traced all the way back to Lees-McRae, where he had spent just four years multiple decades before. So impactful was he that when an interest was sparked in starting an Appalachian heritage center on the college’s campus it was an obvious choice after whom it would be named.

The John B. Stephenson Center for Appalachia was founded in July 2001 with the goal of furthering the understanding of Appalachia and highland regions worldwide, a goal that would continue and build upon John’s life’s work.

“He was very much involved in and did a lot of work for the region of Appalachia throughout his career. Obviously while he was here, but when he went back to Chapel Hill to get his PhD, his work stayed focused on Appalachia, and youths in Appalachia. He was a real supporter and encourager of students to continue their education and to use their voices for change in Appalachia,” Director of the Stephenson Center for Appalachia Kathy Olson said.


Over the past 22 years, the center has continued to grow and evolve, hosting events throughout the year that enrich the college and local communities’ understanding of this region they all call home. Even after her husband’s passing Jane’s passion for this mission and her involvement in the center has remained strong. Not only that, but she had a passion project of her own that is now housed in the very center named for her husband.

The New Opportunity School for Women

As a young girl growing up in Banner Elk, Jane recognized the struggles facing women in the region and across the country from an early age. Although she herself was encouraged by her parents to strive for success and pursue an educationa motivation she attributes in part to the many afternoons she spent taking piano lessons from the college’s piano teacher, reading books from the college’s library, and attending the college’s cultural and community eventsshe knew that these opportunities and encouragements were not provided to all little girls and young women.

In the introduction of her book chronicling the first 20 years of the history NOSW, Jane writes about the early passion she had for improving the lives of women in her community.

“I am a woman of Appalachia,” she writes. “Growing up in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina, I knew women were treated differently than men. They were not encouraged to go on to school, to be smart, to make good grades, to be competitive.” This inequality observed by a young Jane planted the seeds that would eventually grow into the NOSW of today.

The organization, which seeks to improve the educational, financial, and personal circumstances of low-income women in the Southern Appalachian region, is now a staple of the community support and programming here at Lees-McRae. Many don’t know, however, that Jane founded the first chapter of the organization at Berea College while John was president there.

The first ever NOSW session was held at Berea College in the summer of 1987 with 11 women from Kentucky and one from Western North Carolina. The program flourished at Berea, and in 2003 Jane and NOSW received the $100,000 Use Your Life Award from Oprah Winfrey. This money went toward the continued improvement and expansion of the program, and when Jane was ready to expand, Lees-McRae was a perfect place to set her sights.

Thanks to her many years in Banner Elk as a girl, as a young woman enrolled at Lees-McRae, and throughout her adult life both working here and living here part time, Jane knew that there was a need for the support NOSW could provide in this part of North Carolina. The first NOSW session at Lees-McRae was held in July 2005 with 13 women. Since then, the program has continued to serve women in need throughout Southern Appalachia, and, according to Director of NOSW Jennie Harpold, Jane still stokes her passion for the cause in any way she can.

“It has just been part of her life even though she’s living in Kentucky. This is, and always will be, her second home,” Harpold said.

The legacy of service, community building, and education that both John and Jane built at Lees-McRae is one that will live on for decades to come. Their passion for the Appalachian region and its people and their desire to improve the material conditions of the area will continue to be spread through the ongoing work at both the Stephenson Center for Appalachia and the New Opportunity School for Women.

By Maya JarrellApril 19, 2023
CommunityAlumniCampus Life