Scholarship honors actor, theater group

A new scholarship endowment at Western Carolina University will provide financial support to students who major in a School of Stage and Screen academic program, while honoring the legacy of an actor and the local community theater group he helped establish.

The Charles Stancil Stephens-Kudzu Players Endowed Scholarship has been created to help qualifying full-time students obtain a degree in film and TV production, musical theatre, theatre performance or dance.

Penny Stephens Graham and Joseph “Drew” Starkey, the first recipient of the Charles Stancil Stephens-Kudzu Players Scholarship, meet amid the theatrical grandeur of the performance hall of WCU’s John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.

Penny Stephens Graham and Joseph “Drew” Starkey, the first recipient of the Charles Stancil Stephens-Kudzu Players Scholarship, meet amid the theatrical grandeur of the performance hall of WCU’s John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.

Stephens (1945-1988) entered WCU as a freshman in 1963 and returned in 1969 as a Vietnam War veteran majoring in English and professional writing. After graduation, he championed community theater as an actor, director and organizer. The Kudzu Players were an amateur theater group he helped to create in the early 1980s that originally performed at the Old Sylva School and later at other local venues. Stephens served on the group’s first board in 1982. He is remembered for working with casts of all ages, being particularly gifted in encouraging children, and founded the Chatterbox Children’s Theater in 1983 as an offshoot of the Kudzu Players.

“Charlie grew up in the eastern part of the state in the small town of Hallsboro,” said Penny Stephens Graham, his wife of 17 years, a WCU alumna and scholarship spokesperson. “He came to WCU in 1963 and called Jackson County home for the rest of his life. We knew this would be a wonderful place to live, work and play ― and we did! We enjoyed raising our two daughters, Eliza and Spaine, together and loved the theater experience as a family.

“A large amount of [endowment funding] in Charlie’s memory was collected in lieu of flowers when he died,” she said. “Amounts came into the Kudzu Players, both large and small, by people who loved Charlie both on and off the stage. This endowment represents heart rather than just cash. The Charlie Stephens legacy is one that continues through his family, friends, Kudzu Players and the community here. He is remembered for his love, wittiness, service and theater productions for both children and adults.”

This family photo taken a few weeks before Charles S. Stephens’ passing in 1988 shows (clockwise from lower left) Spaine Stephens, Eliza Stephens (Stroh), Charles Stephens and Penny Stephens (Graham).

This family photo taken a few weeks before Charles S. Stephens’ passing in 1988 shows (clockwise from lower left) Spaine Stephens, Eliza Stephens (Stroh), Charles Stephens and Penny Stephens (Graham).

The endowment was made possible by gifts totaling more than $45,000, with an additional $2,000 gift provided to directly fund $1,000 scholarships for 2015-16 and 2016-17, before endowment investment earnings become available. The first recipient of the scholarship is Joseph “Drew” Starkey of Hickory, a senior with a double major in theatre performance with an acting concentration, and in English with a concentration in professional writing.

“I was pleased and surprised that Drew also has a double major in English,” Graham said. “Drew is a wonderful first recipient of this award. He and Charlie have similar qualities. I think Charlie is tickled that a theatre and English major would receive this first scholarship.”

Recipients must be residents of the western half of the state, be of good academic standing and demonstrate financial need. The scholarship may be renewed for a maximum of four years as long as the recipient continues to meet the criteria.

Stephens’ daughters, Eliza Stroh and Spaine Stephens, said they are proud to see their father’s love of life and theater live on through the scholarship’s contribution to the education of promising students.

To make contributions to the Charles Stancil Stephens-Kudzu Players Endowed Scholarship, send checks (payable to WCU Foundation) to Western Carolina University, Development and Alumni Affairs, One University Drive, Cullowhee, N.C. 28723 or contact Natalie Clark, WCU director of donor relations, at 828-227-3090 or nclark@wcu.edu.