When some of York County’s most successful people felt confounded, they often turned to one man for sage advice.
William Stephenson was known across the county for listening carefully before taking thoughtful, decisive action. His firm, fair and calm approach won admirers and propelled him to the tops of organizations, including Westminster Presbyterian Church, which he helped start, and the York County Natural Gas Authority, which he led for 28 years.
“Willie was a leader among leaders,” Westminster Senior Pastor Shelton Sanford said. “He was a winsome convincer.”
“Whether it was (the) Come-See-Me (spring festival) or you were building a sanctuary, he was a go-to guy who you knew could get things done,” said state Sen. Wes Hayes of Rock Hill, a friend of Stephenson’s.
Stephenson died Sunday. He was 71.
Those who knew him said he’ll be remembered far beyond the list of his professional accomplishments and prominent positions.
“He was one of those people who wanted to give back more to the community than he took from it,” Sanford said.
Still, his list of accomplishments runs long.
After graduating from Rock Hill High then Clemson University, Stephenson joined the Army. He later was a YMCA program director and took a job at the Rock Hill Telephone Company, now Comporium Communications. Eventually he joined the York County Natural Gas Authority, where he worked his way to the top. He retired as president in 2005.
Stephenson had been president of the Rock Hill Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Come-See-Me festival, president of the Tri-county Touchdown Club and a YMCA board member.
He was a president of the Rock Hill Sports Commission, before it was absorbed by the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Bill Neely, a former commission member, recalls the early 1990s when Rock Hill was passed over as host for the Big South Conference basketball tournament, which had been held in the city for three straight years.
“Willie said, ‘OK, let’s bid on something else,’ ” Neely said.
They attracted the Atlantic Coast Conference women’s basketball tournament, which brought large crowds to Winthrop Coliseum for five years, Neely said.
It was “Willie’s aplomb and grace and the way he handled the situation” that landed the tournament, Neely said.
While at Clemson, Stephenson played basketball for a year. He spent the rest of his life devoted to the university.
Stephenson took his wife and four children to all the school’s home football games, his daughter Wendi said.
All his children played sports.
“We were at a ball field every night,” Wendi said.
As a father, he passed on advice that served him well.
“He told us how to lead,” Wendi said. “He told us to always listen to your people. In any situation, the most important thing is to listen.”
Stephenson devoted at least as much effort to his faith.
“There’s nobody more instrumental in where Westminster Presbyterian Church is today than Willie and (former Comporium CEO) Frank Barnes,” said Bill Cranford, a Rock Hill dentist and church elder.
Stephenson and Barnes helped found the church in 1974.
Through sickness and health, her father relied on God, Wendi said, even as his wife Linda Jo Crump struggled with illness. He took care of her until she died in 2010.
“Our family has been through a lot in the past few years,” Wendi said. “But he always tells me that our family is really blessed.”