The relationship between Phil Stephens and the Park Cities went beyond sports or journalism.
Former Park Cities People editor Stephens died last week at age 65 following emergency surgery in Rowlett, leaving behind a legacy through words and pictures from more than 40 years in the business.
“The Park Cities was everything to him,” said Gail Stephens, his wife of 32 years. “Covering all the Highland Park sports for the paper, it was his life and his breath. He just had a love for the people there.”
It was that passion that convinced Gail to move to the Park Cities from Richardson in 1982. That’s where the couple raised their four children, all of who later graduated from Highland Park High School, while Stephens was integral as the paper planted its roots in the community.
“There literally would not be a Park Cities People without Phil Stephens,” said former publisher and co-founder Reid Slaughter. “He was that important.”
Slaughter hired Stephens when the paper launched in September 1981 after deciding he wanted the product to distinguish itself largely through its coverage of HPHS sports.
Stephens was promoted from sports editor to managing editor in 1984, and also was well-known for his photography skills.
“Phil’s photography raised the level of the newspaper at an important time. Under Phil, we invested in photography, and it paid off,” Slaughter said. “He was really great at capturing the humanity of the kids.”
Slaughter remembered Stephens as a good-spirited, generous and hard-working colleague. In fact, he was so dedicated that he occasionally slept under his desk as deadlines loomed.
But while he was best known for his sports writing and photography, Slaughter said Stephens also was a very prolific writer of crime stories and profiles during his tenure as managing editor.
Stephens left Park Cities People full-time in 1988 but continued to contribute as a freelancer until 2008.
He also was a longtime advocate for the local and national soccer community, and also operated a freelance photography business. In fact, he covered five World Cup events in locales ranging from China to Italy, as well as the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He was a staple at prominent soccer events in the Dallas area for decades.
“Journalism was his thing, and soccer was his passion,” Gail Stephens said. “He worked so much that he probably slept about four hours a night.”
Gail said that when the family moved to Greenville six years ago, Stephens missed the daily grind of the newspaper business but remained involved by writing and taking photos for some soccer websites, including DallasSoccerNews.
His sister, Teri Smesrud, recalls that Stephens developed an affinity for journalism in high school, and enjoyed covering events big and small.
“It was very important to him. He loved writing and taking pictures,” Smesrud said. “He was a sweet and kind person, and he was always excited about things.”
One of his two daughters, Megan, picked up a love of both photography and soccer from Stephens, often shooting alongside her father at HPHS events and soccer games. She also was a member of the state championship soccer team at HPHS in 1996.
“I think what made an indelible impression on me, in addition to a love for soccer and photography, is my admiration for how he did not compromise his passion for a traditional or more lucrative career,” Megan said. “He followed his heart — which was family, community, and sports photojournalism — all while providing his kids the gift of a great childhood in a wonderful community.”
Stephens also is survived by seven grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday at Park Cities Baptist Church, with a visitation set for 6-8 p.m. Saturday at 3404 Nova Trail in Plano.