James Henry Stephenson

1860 - April 4, 1941
by Grace White Stephenson (daughter-in-law)
Taken from the book We Came Home to Warren Place, by Gilbert T. Stephenson pp. 143 - 147 (1958)

It is fitting that the first personality I tell about be Gilbert's father, James Henry Stephenson. He well may be called the architect and builder, too, of the present Warren Place.

When I first knew him in 1912, I think that he was physically the most nearly perfect specimen of manhood I ever had seen. Hale, hearty, red-cheeked, large but with no surplus flesh, he appeared to be equal to any emergency. There seemed to be no limit to his physical endurance. He would walk over the fields all day, come home and eat a tremendous meal, lie down and sleep like a baby.

He had no fears; rather, he relished an undertaking with an element of suspense in it; it challenged him. When he was a very young man and money was scarce, he and a cousin went in day coaches to Arkansas to visit cousins who had gone out West after the Civil War. He and his cousin took with them enough food to last them the entire trip out. Such a trip was not a hardship for him; it was only another adventure.

He was passionately fond of all animals, especially horses and dogs. During his lifetime I never knew Warren Place without its driving and saddle horses and its dogs. To find a horse such as he wanted he did not hesitate to make a special trip to Atlanta or St. Louis or Kentucky or any other distant point. Upon finding the horse to his liking, he would ride all the way back in the box-car with the horse, to make sure that he was well taken care of. The loss of sleep did not seem to bother him; soon he would make it up at home.

He was a positive person, sometimes domineering, but as tender-hearted as a baby. He and Clarence Day had much in common as portrayed in Life With Father. Both tears and laughter came easily.

"You look well, Mr. Stephenson," someone would say upon greeting him. "Now, I can't help that," he would reply with a twinkle in his eye.

One summer Steve (son of Gilbert and Grace Stephenson and grandson of James Henry Stephenson) and Si Phillips, Steve's school-mate at Harvard, came down to be handy boys at a girls' camp near Suffolk, Virginia, run by one of my nieces. It was near enough Warren Place for Steve's grandfather to make frequent and unexpected visits to the camp. One day he arrived at the camp; visiting hours and other regulations meant nothing to him. The girls were out swimming. He immediately sought out Steve and said, "Thomas, this is no place for you." While the bathing suits of that day were very full and clumsy, yet they offended Henry's sense of modesty.

Next to his love of handsome horses was his adoration of beautiful women. He admired them as another person would admire a handsome painting.

Between him and Gilbert's mother there was a happy and understanding relationship that lasted over 50 years. In temperament two people scarcely could have been more different than they were. He was a bundle of energy, ambitious, willing to take risks both physical and in business affairs. But she, in her quiet way, could calm him down, and in the end "Miss Sue," as he called her, had her way.

During the last few years of his life, when he was almost an invalid and often in pain, she was able to soothe and quiet him as no one else could.

He loved to sing and, when he sang, he gave out all he had. His clear, strong, baritone voice could be heard above all the others.

One of the great interests of his life was his church. More than anything else, he wanted to train the children in the Sunday school to sing. Nowadays when I hear our splendid youth choir on Sunday, I feel sad that he did not live to see accomplished what he so much wanted--a trained choir of children.

He was masterly in the handling of labor. In his heyday there were perhaps 200 people on his farms. A few of them still are living. These old ones, now long since retired, still refer to "Mr. Henry" and "Miss Sue" and complain that "Mr. Gilbert" does not come to see them as often as Mr. Henry did. Peetes, next after Warren Place, was his favorite plantation. When he was there looking around, if he was hungry, he did not hesitate to have Tink, wife of the tenant who occupied the main house, to go out and kill and fry a chicken for his lunch. Tink still is alive and nearly always, when Gilbert and I are on Peetes, makes some comment about "Mr. Henry." The colored people on all the places liked but stood in awe of him. He spoke to them positively and sometimes loudly. He expected to be obeyed, and he was. Underneath his exterior were kindness and considerateness and a protective instinct for those for whose welfare he felt himself so largely responsible, and they respected him for these qualities.

While he had more than average school advantages for the youths of his day, having attended Elm Grove Academy in Hertford County, a prep school, he always regretted that he had not gone to college. He wanted his son to have the higher education of which he himself and been deprived. After Gilbert was graduated by Wake Forest College, his mother thought that it was time for him to come home and settle down. In this instance she had not reckoned with his father's plans for him. He was determined that Gilbert should have the best school opportunities that were available. Gilbert was not only young in years but also very young in looks when he went off to college. During his summer vacations after he had returned from Wake Forest he went around the neighborhood with his father. One day a friend and former schoolmate of his father's said, "Henry, that boy looks like he might have some ability. Why don't you send him to school more?"

Without a smile, Henry replied, "Well, Johnny, I have been thinking about it."

He was in his 70's when he had his first hospital experience. Will Stephenson relates the conversation that took place between Gilbert's father and the nurse who was getting his life history for the record.

"Mr. Stephenson, how old was your mother when she died?"
"Over 90."
"What did she die of?"
"How old was your father when he died?"
"Over 90."
"What did he die of?"
"In case of emergency whom shall we call?"

The nurse gave up, thinking that he was out of his mind. He was not at all. In fact, as he said, both is mother and his father had died at 91 years of age. They had died of old age, not of disease. He had not thought of an emergency regarding himself.

After his health failed, he was like a giant oak that had been felled. At first he was resentful and rebellious over having to turn over the running of Warren Place and the other plantations to other persons. But in his last days he softened and gracefully accepted the inevitable.

I hope that the future occupants of Warren Place will have inherited something of his vision, his courage, and his dynamic personality.