Jean Stephens meets infant Jean Digitale, 1986


My wife and I named our middle daughter after my community college journalism teacher.

If you’ve never thought of such an act, perhaps you’ve never had a teacher like Jean Stephens.

It was Dr. Stephens who encouraged me to apply for a paid internship at The Press Democrat while I was a student at UC Berkeley. In response, I drove to Santa Rosa in the spring of 1978, met with the newspaper’s managing editor and left encouraged that I could get a position the next winter that paid in a week what the city editor at our campus paper made in a month. I remembered thinking, “But they don’t even know if I can type.” It never dawned on me that the managing editor had spoken to Dr. Stephens’ class that spring at Sacramento City College. She must have recommended me to him. I got the three-month internship, my first chance to work for a daily newspaper. I’m still here three decades later.

Jean Stephens taught journalism at Sacramento City College for more than 30 years. Among her honors, in 1977 she was named the Outstanding Journalism Teacher by the state’s Journalism Association of Community Colleges. She died July 30 at the age of 85.

At Friday’s funeral service, more than a half-dozen of her former students attended. They had gone on to work for the Sacramento Bee, the Sacramento Business Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chronicle of Higher Education. They represented just a few of the many lives she had touched, not only in her classes but for years afterwards.

She gave us countless hours as the journalism adviser for the college paper. But the giving didn’t end after you moved on from City College. She became a life-long mentor, someone to turn to for guidance and encouragement. She came to visit me in Santa Rosa and she often welcomed my family into her home, filled with paintings and glass art, and alive with the scurrying of her Pekingese pooches.

She cared passionately about good journalism and the state of the news business. You could be sure that any phone call with her would include a plea for insight into what was happening at your paper or in the industry.

She was an inimitable soul with a voice that one moment could rise lyrically with satisfied assurance and then the next dropped plaintively to lament some sad state of affairs. She eventually sold her home to a woman who became such a good friend that she served as one of Dr. Stephens’ key angels at the end of her life. My old teacher quipped to her that you should be careful when you buy a home that the owner doesn’t come with it.

Her students knew that Jean Stephens was on their side. She won’t soon be forgotten by those she took under her wing.