Tribute to Retirees 2010—Don Stevens

by rhanley

When the Frieda Jordan gang get to talking about the good old days, Don will probably tell you about his first visit to NMH—the time he didn’t stay. In May of 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, he interviewed at the Northfield Seminary (just before the merger), but took his first teaching job at Immaculata College instead.

Ten years later, with degrees in religion and philosophy from Notre Dame and Columbia, and stops at Duke Divinty School, New College, Tennessee, and Oberlin, Stevens returned to NMH with his newly minted Ph.D. from Duke to join his fiancée, Sher Sweet, in the religious studies department.

The next 30 years featured two stints as department chair, long service as a Cum Laude officer, and 25 years as a “varsity Jew” (says Don, in “triple-threat” cadence), a term Don created because he held weekly Shabbat services in his home, and organized public observances of Sukkot, Hanukkah and Yom HaShoah. He helped train NMH cooks to prepare Kosher Passover Seders in West Hall and, in 1991, managed to head off a conflict between Convocation and Rosh Hoshanah.

Don won the Academic Dean’s Award in 1985, an Independence Master’s Chair in 1993, and saw his son, Jake, graduate in the class of 2008.
“Of course I didn’t know what I was getting into,” quipped Don recently. “Who could? But I was always impressed with the maturity and energy of our students and the ambitious vision we had in religious studies. I think I was meant to be here; it has been a satisfying life.” We were sitting alone in his Blake classroom, surrounded by artifacts from the world’s religions and whiteboards full of scribbles about Nietzsche from his philosophy class. “I’ve been teaching philosophy for over 35 years, and I think I’m getting good at it,” he mused, with wry introspective aplomb. “I really believe they get something from wrestling with this.”

The “something” was aptly summed up by an effusive sophomore boy who once told me, “Doc Stevens gets us. He really cares. I mean, who would’ve thought that religion would be my favorite class?” One of my hockey captains said that he made her laugh in every class and that she always thought about subjects more deeply later. She was on a mission to get everyone to take one of his courses.

For my part, when it’s time to help the small man with the scholar’s mind and lover’s heart load his Bonsai trees for the westward push to Arizona, I will hear again the Talmud’s words: “The Lord Your God does not require you to accomplish the whole work of salvation alone, but neither are you excused from your proper part.” Well done, Doc Stevens, well done!

—Gary Partenheimer

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One Response to “Tribute to Retirees 2010—Don Stevens”

  1. Kyung Chon says:


    Mr. Stevens was my philosophy class teacher back in winter ’86. Don will remember me as a south korean student whom Don was actually waving at as he(I) was leaving the school on one spring day of 1987.

    I would appreciate if you could forward this message to Don, I’d love to speak to him.

    Thank you for your time and have a great day!

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