Nearly 170 people packed into the Selma Spike 'n' Rail Steakhouse on Saturday night to honor someone most just called "Coach."
Jim Stephenson, 82, coached middle school and then high school sports from 1957 to the early '80s, and people from nearly every one of his teams attended the banquet to honor him. Former swimmers, football players or students came from Florida, Oregon, the East Coast and even Germany to honor Stephenson. He was best known for coaching swimming and football at Selma High School.
Ted Heckman, who graduated from Selma High in 1967 and has lived in Florida, Oregon and "all over" California, has only been back to Selma a few times since leaving. When he visits, he only comes to see his mom — and Coach.
Stephenson was the whole reason for the event, for which planning started eight months ago. At first, it was supposed to be a swim team reunion organized through a Facebook group, but as more and more people showed interest, the event grew to be something much larger.
"He was always low key. He never looked for publicity," said Steve Leoni, who graduated from Selma High in 1966. "We were amazed as we called people and the stories we heard about how they were touched so deeply by him."
Before arriving in Selma, Stephenson played baseball and football for Fresno High, where he graduated in 1948. He went to Fresno State and also served in the Army from 1954 to 1956. He taught at Roosevelt Junior High in Selma starting in 1957 and in 1962 moved to Selma High, where he coached for nearly two decades and also taught art.
Stephenson devoted many years to the swim program at Selma High, starting in 1962. He built up a strong program, and under his direction the team won its first league championship in 1966, Leoni said.
Most former team members remembered Stephenson as someone who encouraged them to work hard and genuinely cared about each individual on the team.
"He was the kind of adult that was rare," Leoni said. "Whenever he asked, 'How ya doing?' he really wanted to know."
Stephenson's students and athletes described him as a man of integrity, compassion and commitment.
"He was this giant man that never raised his voice. He talked so quietly, everyone had to listen to him," Heckman said. "All the other coaches screamed and yelled. He let you figure out how to be the best."
As alumni entered the banquet hall, they signed a T-shirt for Stephenson and left him cards. A slideshow played showing team photos and Stephenson working with players. He was even presented a vintage Selma High School letterman's jacket.
Stephenson humbly cracked jokes about all the people gathering to honor him.
"Overkill? Maybe," he said. "It's just really great. Some of these people I haven't seen in 50 years."
His daughter, Kathy Stephenson Cantu, said he didn't understand why so many people came to see him.
"He doesn't realize the impact he had on people," she said.
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