Jeff's Journal - 50th Anniversary: Carl Stephens

Cartoon Carl just celebrated a milestone birthday.

Born on the same day as Elvis Presley (Jan. 8, 1935), Carl Stephens just hit the big 7-0!

"An unsettling experience," Mr. Stephens tells the Journal. "But I still feel good. My health's good. I'm thankful."

Growing up in Gadsden, Carl Stephens started announcing baseball games (for the Class B Gadsden Pilots) when he was only 12.

He graduated from the University of Alabama in June of '57.

The very next day, Mr. Stephens started working at WSFA 12.

For most of the next 42 years (more than 80 percent of the station's history), Carl Stephens served WSFA 12 with distinction in a variety of jobs.

Hired as a booth announcer in the station's third year on the air, Mr. Stephens had been with WSFA 12 only three months when he was assigned to host a children's show.

Cartoon Carl was born. Kids came from all over to visit WSFA 12 and see Cartoon Carl. Only 22 years old himself at the time, Cartoon Carl wasn't very much older than the children he entertained.

When Leroy Paul, WSFA 12's first sports director, left in 1961, Mr. Stephens was in line to replace him. But when Mr. Stephens' Air National Guard unit was activated, the station hired Earl Hutto to do sports.

The Guard unit was scheduled to go to Germany to assist with the Berlin air lift, but the orders to depart never came. So Carl Stephens stayed in Montgomery, working with the National Guard unit during the day and anchoring the news on "Nightbeat" each evening at 10 p.m.

In 1963, Earl Hutto left the station in a dispute over compensation for the Auburn Football Review (see last week's Journal). Carl Stephens became WSFA 12's third sports director, a position he held for the next 13 years.

Like Mr. Paul and Mr. Hutto before him, Carl Stephens hosted the Auburn Football Review with Coach Shug Jordan. And like his predecessors, Mr. Stephens frequently stayed up all night on Saturdays editing film for Sunday's broadcast.

Concerned that some Auburn people might not approve of an Alabama man hosting the Auburn coach's show (even though Mr. Paul was also a Bama grad and Mr. Hutto earned his degree from Troy), Mr. Stephens listened to Coach Jordan's advice. "He said, 'don't ever look back,'' Mr. Stephens recalls.

Each week, Mr. Stephens would introduce Coach Jordan, then make a comment about the game. Coach Jordan's reply can still be heard today when Auburn fans get together. "You're so right, Carl."

"I can tell how old people are by whether they call me "Cartoon Carl" or "You're so right, Carl," Mr. Stephens says.

"Covering both Auburn and Alabama during their heyday was a lot of fun," Mr. Stephens tells the Journal. "And it was a thrill to know Coach Jordan and Coach Bryant. Believe me, both of them were very nice to me. We had some great coverage back in those days."

In the mid '60's, Mr. Stephens first covered an Alabama bowl game. That tradition continues 40 years later. Any time the Tide or the Tigers play a bowl game, WSFA 12 will be there.

In 1975, Mr. Stephens decided to get into management. He spent two years as program manager at WSFA 12's sister station in Columbia, South Carolina, before coming home to assume the same responsibilities at WSFA 12 in 1978.

He was no longer the sports anchor, but still very involved in sports. When Auburn needed a public address announcer in the '70's, they knew who to call.

If you've been to a football game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in the past three decades, you've heard Carl Stephens' voice.

When the Southeastern Conference needed a P.A. man for its first SEC Championship game in '92, they called Mr. Stephens.

"I've done all 13 games for them," Mr. Stephens says. "I hope they keep asking. It's quite a thrill to come over here (to the Georgia Dome). I don't know how they picked me, but I enjoy doing it."

Mr. Stephens and his wife Mary enjoy time with their five grandchildren (three in Montgomery and two in Auburn).

You might run into Carl and Mary at the park, where they take 16-month old twin grandsons Parker and Preston once a week.

Exhausted, but exhilarated.

And encouraging.

When I started at WSFA in 1991 at the age of 25, it meant so much to hear Carl Stephens pop into the sports office and say, "You did a good job covering that."

Looking back on a four-decade career at a station he helped build, Mr. Stephens smiles.

"It is a great television station. Always has been," Mr. Stephens says. "At first, the Oklahoma Publishing Company put a lot of money into it. Then they sold the station to what was then the Broadcasting Company of the South (now Liberty Corporation). They kept putting money into it and have supported the people there all these years. And it's great to see WSFA still number one."

Elvis Presley was the "King of Rock and Roll."

But around here, Cartoon Carl will always be treated like royalty.

Next week, we'll feature WSFA 12 Sports Director Number Four, Phil Snow.

See you then!

God bless - Jeff