(February 11, 1902 – 1963)
Stephens’ success in the dairy industry was rivaled only by his successes in many cultural and artistic endeavors.
Clifford “C.Y.” Stephens, one of Iowa State University’s most distinguished alumni, rose from humble beginnings to gain the success he is now known for within the Iowa State community. Born February 11, 1902 in Cherokee County, Georgia, Stephens was one of eleven children of a Baptist preacher who farmed part-time. When asked about his choice of Iowa State for college, Stephens says he took the advice of famed politician Horace Greeley to “go west, young man”, for as Stephens would put it, “Iowa was ‘west’ to a Georgia boy”. Originally planning to study animal husbandry, a program for which Iowa State had a notable reputation, Stephens switched to dairy industry shortly after beginning his studies, a switch Stephens says “I never had reason to regret.” Even before his graduation in 1925, Stephens was already making a name for himself in the dairy industry, being named manager of the milk marketing organization, Producers Cooperative Association in Marshalltown, Iowa. Business opportunities took him from Marshalltown to Charlotte, North Carolina and eventually to Washington, D.C. where he met his wife, Mary Anne who worked in nearby New York City. They married on Christmas Day in 1931.
In the early 1930’s, shortly after moving to Washington, D.C., Clifford borrowed just $1,800 to enter into a private partnership with L.W. High of High’s Dairy Products Co. Originally opening a chain of only ten ice cream stores in the Washington, D.C. area, the company went on to operate nearly 150 stores in the D.C. area and over 200 stores throughout the Eastern part of the country, as well as a dairy processing plant and a 700-acre farm. In 1941, Stephens became the sole owner of the company. The company originated as a part of the ice cream industry, but went into milk production in 1937, into the gallon milk jug business in 1955 and eventually added a grocery line in 1957. This rapid business expansion was due largely in part to Clifford’s innovative and new ideas for dairy processing and merchandising and High’s Dairy Products Co. went on to gross over $40 million annually.
Stephens’ success in the dairy industry was rivaled only by his successes in many cultural and artistic endeavors. His love of theater led him to purchase sixteen acres of land in the Maryland countryside and open the Olney summer theater, which saw great financial success. Stephens helped operate, produce and direct summer shows for nearly 15 years and eventually handed over the theater to Father Hartke of Catholic University of America, based on the suggestion of his business associate and accountant, Benny Goodman. Stephens later liked to joke about how “a Jewish accountant had advised the son of a Baptist minister to turn his theatre over to a Catholic priest.”
Of all Stephens’ successes, his most significant legacy exists on the campus of Iowa State University. Beginning in 1961, Stephens was named national chairman of Iowa State University’s fund-raising campaign for a cultural and educational center in Ames, which would come to be known as the Iowa State Center. When asked about his interest in the Iowa State Center, Stephens was quoted as saying “This project is desperately needed for the institution… The alumni, university staff and other friends of Iowa State must do the job. No one else will… For me it is a repayment of the debt of gratitude for what Iowa State did for me…” Stephens himself pledged $1 million and was able to raise $4.2 million in his nearly three years as chairman of the project until his death in 1963.
Stephens was a member of the Iowa State College Board of Governors and cited for his many contributions to the dairy industry through the scholarship foundation he established. In fact, he was once quoted saying “This foundation is my life’s ambition.” In 1957, Stephens was made a member of the Iowa Beta chapter of Gamma Sigma Delta, the Honor Society of Agriculture. In 1960, he received the Alumni Merit Award of the Iowa State Club of Chicago. Stephens has been listed among the top 100 of Iowa State University’s most eminent members.
Iowa State University remained to Stephens all throughout his life, and the fondness and admiration he held for the place can be seen in all of the wonderful things he has to say about the institution: “Confidence is the single greatest thing that Iowa State gave me. There were many other benefits of from my four years on campus, but this stands out above the rest.”
C.Y. Stephens’ papers are in Special Collections, Iowa State University, Ames.
Additional material located in the Iowa State Center and Stephens Auditorium files.
For secondary sources, see Washington Post, 6/10/1956, C10; The Iowa State University Alumnus, Vol. 57, No. 4, Feb. 1962; The Iowa State University Alumnus, Vol. 60, No. 3, Dec. 1964.