Awe at the generosity of Thelma E. Stephens mixed with sadness among Idaho State University administrators and faculty members, who praised Stephens' life and legacy. The lead donor to the University's new performing arts center died Sept. 15 at age 98.
Stephens and her late husband, L.E., were major donors to Idaho State University. They contributed about $12 million toward the construction of the L.E. and Thelma E. Stephens Performing Arts Center, on Bartz Hill in Pocatello.
Thelma Stephens died at a Boise hospital after falling earlier in the week and breaking her hip. Funeral services were held Sept. 19 in Boise.
"The impact Thelma made on this University is incredible," said Dr. Kent Tingey, ISU vice president for advancement. "It was her lead gift that made the Stephens Performing Art Center possible, and everyone knows the impact that center is having on this University and this part of the state. We will be forever grateful to her."
The Stephenses were the lead donors to the $34 million complex that bears their names. L.E. Stephens was an innovator in the potato business who worked as a salesman for the Idaho Potato Growers before starting Teepee Potato Co. in 1938. The couple would travel cross-country together establishing a national market for Idaho potatoes. Over the years, Mrs. Stephens found time for community service and involvement with Boy and Girl Scouts.
Though not college-educated herself, Stephens said she believed in education and that she harbored a love for the performing arts that paralleled her late husband's love of and support for ISU athletics.
The Stephenses had one child, Marcia, who drowned at age 3. The Stephenses donated their estate to Idaho State University in her memory.
Thelma Stephens received the Governor's Award in the Arts in 2004, and in 1997 she received the ISU William J. Bartz Award during Homecoming.
ISU performing arts faculty expressed their gratitude towards Stephens for her generosity.
"Her gift has certainly made a major impact, not only on our department and faculty, but also in recruiting efforts," said Dr. Randy Earles, chair of the ISU Music Department. "The facility has made a major impression on prospective students who have seen it.
"We're extremely pleased with the generosity of Thelma Stephens," continued Earles. " It has meant a great deal to us in the music department. We all are still in awe of the nature of facility."
ISU Theatre and Dance Department chair Dr. Sherri Dienstfrey expressed appreciation for the facility and regrets that Stephens was never healthy enough to see it in person after major construction was completed in 2004.
"Her gift, and the construction of the Stephens Center, have just made things very, very special for theatre and dance activities at ISU," Dienstfrey said. "I just wish she could have seen this place and all of what it has done."
Last year, the theatre and dance department sent Stephens a notebook with pictures of all the season's productions, and ISU students in the department wrote notes thanking her.
"Her gift has allowed theatre and dance to expand at ISU and we've grown so much since we've become our own department," Dienstfrey said. "Thelma's generosity and vision is benefiting our students and community now, and will do so for many years to come."