Harrison Stephens: Newspaperman, jazz musician

Newspaperman, jazz musician, loving patriarch

Harrison Lee Stephens, a longtime Claremont resident, died on May 4, 2015, two months short of his 100th birthday.

He was born on July 7, 1915 in Los Angeles, the son of Jess and Alice Stephens. His father was city attorney of Los Angeles for several years and then became a Superior Court judge.

Harrison graduated from Los Angeles High School and from Stanford University with a degree in journalism. During his first newspaper job on the Merced Sun-Star, he was assigned to interview Doris Landram, a local girl who at that time was the town’s only female airplane pilot as well as a gifted singer. They were married six weeks later on October 6, 1939.

The Stephenses had four children and were married almost 70 years before Doris’ death in 2009. Mr. Stephens’ granddaughter, Jen Reeder, interviewed him for a 2014 Huffington Post blog entry titled “Life Advice From My 99-year-old Grandpa—Still the Coolest Guy I Know.” Among other topics, he weighed in on the subject of finding true love.

“I think there’s a lot of luck involved, and I think there’s a lot of mystery involved,” he said. “After I’d known Doris for really just a very short time, I realized that I was more comfortable with her than I’d ever been with anybody. What brings that about? I don’t know—that’s the mystery.”

During World War II, Mr. Stephens was a Navy gunnery and communications officer aboard ships in the Asian-Pacific area. He worked for several newspapers in his career and, for three years, owned and published a weekly newspaper called the La Verne Leader.

He spent 20 years in a variety of news positions on the Pomona Progress-Bulletin, now the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. He was news editor of that paper when he resigned to become director of public information for Claremont University Center, a position he held for 11 years.  After retiring from the college post in 1980, he did freelance writing, publishing many articles and four non-fiction books, including A Song of Home: The First 75 Years of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, California.

A good deal of Mr. Stephens’ writing in retirement involved volunteer work for nonprofit organizations, including the Volunteer Center (now the Inland Valley Resource Center), Volunteer Vital English, Claremont Heritage, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, the Claremont Symphony Orchestra, the Claremont Committee on Aging and the Pomona-Inland Valley Council of Churches as well as the Claremont University Club, for which he had served as president. He was a former board member of Hillcrest Homes in La Verne and had served as a corporation member of Pilgrim Place and Mt. San Antonio Gardens in Claremont.

Mr. Stephens contributed many letters to the editor over the years to the COURIER, championing liberal causes, correcting editorial errors and, in one case, chastising the city for the lack of genre diversity in the summer concert series. In one letter, he referred to himself as “a kind of nice old geezer, actually.” In another, he shared with amusement that his 4-year-old great-grandson had mistakenly dubbed the City of Trees “Clevermont,” a misnomer he considered appropriate.

Mr. Stephens played an active part in the local news scene up to the very end. In 2014, COURIER coverage of the city’s Fourth of July celebration included a cover photo of the 98-year-old Harrison, dressed as Uncle Sam and riding a three-wheeled bike. The following month, a poem he penned graced the paper’s “Adventures in Haiku” section.

He and Doris moved to Claremont Manor in 2007, and he was president of the Manor Residents’ Association a year later. In 2000, the Claremont Rotary Club named Mr. Stephens a Paul Harris Fellow “in appreciation of tangible and significant assistance given for the furtherance of better understanding and friendly relations among people of the world.”

Mr. Stephens had two main hobbies: sailing and music. He built the family’s first sailboat in 1951 and was an active sailor and sailboat owner into his late 80s. He was a member of the Balboa Yacht Club and wrote a column on the sea, called “A Dash of Salt,” for the club’s magazine past his mid-90s. For many years, he also wrote a column for the Stanford magazine as correspondent for his class of 1938. Stanford Associates gave him its Award of Merit in 2008 and elected him a member of the Associates in 2010.

Mr. Stephens also was a jazz musician who began playing guitar at age 12. He played guitar with numerous small combos, sometimes for charity and sometimes for pay. During his 90s he led a jazz quintet, The Swing Shift, playing several gigs in the Claremont area. Mr. Stephens was a member and former president of the Maestros, a musicians’ club in Pasadena.

For several years and well into his 99th year, Mr. Stephens hosted an informal music session every Tuesday afternoon in his Claremont Manor apartment. It usually consisted of three or four musicians and a few friends. The format, he explained, was “an hour and a half of jazz and then we settle into a dry martini.”

In Mr. Stephens’ Huffington Post interview, he noted he had come to a conclusion about the meaning of life.

“It sounds awfully corny and saccharine, and it’s been said by so many people, but I think that love is the most important thing there is,” he said. “To love and to be loved—that combination is a wonderful thing. That’s the lasting thing.”

Mr. Stephens is survived by his daughter and son-in-law Sally and Tom Reeder, of Oxnard; his son David Hulse-Stephens and his wife Geri, of Willits; and 10 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren. A daughter, Susan Collins, died in 2013; a son, Donald, died in 2014; and a sister, Barbara Guard, died in 2004.

Harrison Stephens’ life will be celebrated on Saturday, June 6 at 4 p.m. at Claremont Manor. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a contribution to Rock 1 Kidney (rock1kidney.org), a nonprofit organization founded by a granddaughter that provides information and encouragement to potential transplant donors.


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