Former longtime WSFA 12 Sports Director and Program Manager Carl Stephens died at a Montgomery hospital on Wednesday evening after a brief illness.
Stephens, who started at WSFA 12 the day after he graduated from the University of Alabama in 1957, spent more than 40 years at the television station on East Delano Avenue.
Hired as a booth announcer straight out of college, it didn't take long before the 22-year-old was in front of the camera and in the spotlight, entertaining children not much younger than himself.
The late broadcaster once said he could tell just how old Montgomerians were by the way they referred to him. It was either "Cartoon Carl" or "You're so right, Carl!"
The first nickname came from the popular cartoon show of the same name that he helped start in the late 1950s. Someone jokingly referred to him as "Cartoon Carl", and the rest is history. For four years, children attended weekly, live broadcasts of the show. Many adults now look back and remember celebrating birthdays or sharing a joke with Carl and their TV neighbors during the show's run. "Half of the older Montgomerians sat in my lap..." Stephens once joked of the show's success.
The second nickname came during a more serious phase of Stephens' tenure at WSFA. As the third sports director (1963-1975), Carl was responsible for the Auburn Football Review show with head football coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan. Stephens recalled that he would open the show with a statement to which Coach Jordan would quickly respond, "You're so right, Carl!" It didn't take long before that name was imprinted on a different generation of viewers. There was even a bumper sticker for the phrase.
Though he was often associated with Coach Jordan and Auburn, Stephens was a graduate of the University of Alabama and often interviewed Crimson Tide football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. "It was a thrill to know both [Auburn and Alabama coaches]…" Stephens said. "Both of them were very nice to me…"
Stephens was also well known for his role as the longtime public address announcer for Auburn football and basketball events. In addition to his work for Auburn, Stephens was the public address voice for the first 15 Southeastern Conference Football Championship games, 14 SEC Basketball Tournaments and six SEC Baseball Tournaments. He also did public address work for NCAA Basketball Tournament games in Birmingham. Stephens called his last game at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 19, 2005, when Auburn defeated Alabama, 28-18.
"The Auburn Family has lost a true gentleman and one of the university's greatest ambassadors in the death of Carl Stephens," Auburn Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs said. "
"Carl was universally respected as a tremendous professional, having been the public address voice for the first 15 SEC Championship football games and other SEC events." Jacobs said. "As great as his professional accomplishments were, those who knew and loved Carl will most remember him as one of the kindest men you could ever hope to meet. Carl was a legend who will be truly missed by us all. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Mary, their children Richard and Sandra, and grandchildren."
His commanding, yet smooth voice greeted viewers for years to each newscast with "WSFA Channel 12, Montgomery". Looking back on his years, Carl once recalled during his time as a booth announcer that a station ID slide appeared on-air, upside down. Without missing a beat, he spoke into the microphone, "Any way you look at it, you're watching WSFA Montgomery."
But he was more than just the voice of WSFA-TV. For decades, Carl sat high above the action only to have his familiar voice broadcast over the public address system to thousands of Auburn fans. In the early days of his career, though, he worried that some Auburn fans wouldn't accept an Alabama man as their game announcer. He ultimately took Coach Jordan's advice on the matter: "He said, "Don't ever look back…" Stephens explained in an interview. He never did.
Roger Thomas, a former WSFA 12 production manager who counted Stephens as a longtime friend said, "It's a big loss." Thomas was Stephens' spotter in the press box for many years. "He was a true professional who did everything at the station."
In 1975, Stephens retired from his on-air position with WSFA, spending two years at sister station WIS-TV in Columbia, South Carolina in a management role. He soon returned to WSFA where he spent another 20 years. He announced his retirement in 1998. Stephens continued on as the PA announcer with Auburn Athletics until retiring from that role in 2005.
Carl stayed active at the station he loved even in the years beyond his employment. He made annual appearances, not as "Cartoon Carl", but as another popular figure among children: Santa Claus.
Born the very same day as Elvis Presley, Stephens showed himself to be a king of sorts among broadcasters. He'll always be missed, and he'll never be replaced.
Carl is survived by his wife, Mary, son Richard, daughter Sandra and several grandchildren, Stephens was 77-years-old.
Funeral arrangements are not yet finalized. WSFA 12 News will share that information as it becomes available.
Copyright 2012 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.