Frank Stephens Jr.: Beloved Mt. Airy artist and Free Library 'pioneer'

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It is hard to know what to mention first about Frank Stephens Jr., a Mt. Airy resident for 49 years  — his award-winning art, the fact that he was the first Black manager at the 130-year-old Free Library of Philadelphia or the fact that he and his wife, Jeannette, raised and loved children who were not their own but who had been abandoned by addicted or imprisoned parents.

Stephens, who was born in 1932 in Augusta, Georgia, but moved to Philadelphia at an early age, died March 11 of lung cancer at age 89 in his Mt. Airy home.

Grandson Ronald Stephens, 35, who works for the Vanguard mutual fund company, told us last week, “He was my grandfather, but I considered him my father. My (biological) parents both struggled with addiction and were in and out of prison, so my grandparents raised me from the time I was nine months old. If it wasn't for them, I would have been in foster care or in a drug house. I did not even meet my parents until I was 15 and 16. And my grandparents did the same thing for some other children.”

Ronald admits he “almost turned into a bowl of soup up there” when he read his tribute to his granddad at a public viewing (under Covid restrictions) on March 23 at Batchelor Brothers Funeral Services in West Oak Lane.

“I could not have loved him more. There was not a day in my life when he was not there for me. Every sporting event, every school event, everything that was important. He was always there. He was my best friend. He was the best man at my wedding. And he was just as wonderful to all my childhood friends. With grandmom's help, he put the family on his back. He retired more than 20 years ago but never once went on a vacation in his retirement. He was too busy helping people. Both grandparents sacrificed so much.”

David Owens, warden at the Camden County Department of Corrections (and a former Stephens' neighbor), said, “Our families go back 55 years. Frank was enormously talented, a sweet man and not at all pretentious. He spent many, many unpaid hours at the prison just talking to inmates and giving them counsel. He would do anything for people. He was dearly loved by the inmates and staff. I just hope and pray that I can live up to the mark he has left.”

Frank, who was born in Augusta, GA, but whose family moved to Philly when he was 10, graduated from Bok Vocational Technical High School with a major in Commercial Art. According to his family, Stephens' own father, Frank Sr., did everything he could to dissuade Frank from pursuing a career as an artist because “it was too girly,” but his mother, Alice, encouraged him and sacrificed to make sure he always had enough art supplies. When Frank told a teacher at Bok he wanted to become an artist, the teacher said to him, “The only brush you will ever use is a broom.” 

Frank was an illustrator in the U.S. Air Force, became a sergeant at age 19 and was in charge of the Graphic Arts Unit at Harlingen Air Force Base in Texas. In Philadelphia after his discharge, he attended the Hussain School of Arts and graduated from the Philadelphia College of Arts (now The University of the Arts) in 1961 with an Advertising Design degree.

He then began his career at the Free Library of Philadelphia as an illustrator and in 1965 was promoted to Exhibits Manager. He ascended through the ranks and was appointed Library Arts and Graphic Administrator in 1990. He became the first African American male ever to serve on the Free Library’s Management Team. He was the principal creator of over 300 major exhibitions and used his talents in particular to highlight Black artists, visionaries and African American history.

Over his career, Stephens was awarded over 35 graphic, community and civil awards including two gold medals for graphic design, one gold model for art direction from the Graphic Arts Association of Delaware Valley and the “Best of the Best” award presented by the Philadelphia African American Museum. His work has been cited by countless artists, educational and cultural institutions, civic and community organizations.

In addition, he blazed a trail in American history when he was introduced to the legendary singer Marian Anderson through his colleague and mentor, Charles Blockson. Ms. Anderson chose Frank to be her lead and only chief resident artist and photographer. He began doing paintings and portraits of her during her later years which she displayed and kept in her home. In 1990, the premiered work in that collection was also cataloged with the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Through all his awards, Frank said his greatest accomplishment was taking great care of his family. He and Jeannette were married for 66 years. Frank was preceded in death by three brothers, two daughters and one daughter-in-law. He is survived by his wife, Jeannette, one brother,  two sons, Frank III and Ronald; one daughter-in-law, five grandchildren, two granddaughters-in-law, two great granddaughters and many other relatives and friends.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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