LITHIA — When one of his students at East Bay High School mentioned he was considering dropping out, Sgt. Maj. John K. Stephens had a standard response:
"Let me see your hands," he'd say.
The puzzled student would hold out his hands. Sgt. Maj. Stephens would nod approvingly.
"Those are good hands for picking cucumbers," he'd say. "And that's the kind of job you're going to end up with if you quit school."
A lot of the students heeded his warning. Sgt. Maj. Stephens taught ROTC at East Bay for 13 years, and many of his students went on to military careers or successful lives in other professions.
"It seemed like everywhere we went we would run into one of his cadets," said his wife, Brenda Stephens.
His students may not have known that Sgt. Maj. Stephens himself had built two distinguished careers — one in the Army and one in Hillsborough County schools — after dropping out of school and running away from home.
Sgt. Maj. Stephens died Nov. 26 from complications of hepatitis C, which he acquired from a blood transfusion after he was wounded in Vietnam. He was 79.
He grew up in Detroit, and his mother died when he was young. His father remarried a woman who, at least to young John Stephens, was "the typical wicked stepmother," Stephens' wife said.
So at age 16, with nothing but the clothes on his back and 35 cents in his pocket, he hitchhiked to Cincinnati, where his aunt lived.
He took a job at an ice cream store. Every day on his way to work he passed an Army recruitment office. One day he decided to stop in. He lied about his age and enlisted.
Sgt. Maj. Stephens seldom talked about his military career. He served in the Korean and Vietnam wars and was wounded several times. Once he was shot in the head, and that wound led to the loss of his hearing later in life, his wife said. Leg wounds forced him to use walkers and wheelchairs as he grew older.
He retired from the Army in his early 40s. His ex-wife had moved to Melbourne, so Sgt. Maj. Stephens moved to Florida to be close by.
He had never considered a career in education. But when he learned the Hillsborough County school system was looking for an ROTC instructor, he decided to give it a try. He taught at Hillsborough, Armwood and Plant City high schools before he started his 13-year stint at East Bay.
He loved teaching as much as he had loved the Army, and he especially loved teaching at East Bay, where a lot of students come from disadvantaged families.
"He didn't have a lot when he was growing up," Brenda Stephens said. "I guess that's why he felt such a bond with the students there."
Sgt. Maj. Stephens retired from his second career in the mid 1990s.
It was only recently, as his health was failing, that he was diagnosed with hepatitis C. Doctors determined that the transfusions he received in Vietnam must have been the cause.
He was determined to live a full life, even as his health deteriorated. He remained active in the Shriners, the Elks Lodge and Bell Shoals Baptist Church, where he met his second wife, Brenda.
In recent weeks his family knew he was very sick, but Sgt. Maj. Stephens seemed to know he was dying. He didn't say anything to his loved ones, but when he picked up his uniform from a dry cleaner he had patronized for years, he told him he wouldn't be coming back. The dry cleaner asked him why.
"I'm going to see the Lord," Sgt. Maj. Stephens said.
Sgt. Maj. Stephens is survived by his wife; his children, Johnny Jr., Kristy and Nancy; his sister Anne; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Marty Clear writes life stories about bay area residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.