As a young sports journalist for the Arkansas Gazette in the 1980s, Monitor reporter Donna Lampkin Stephens became one of the first female reporters to enter the previously all-male locker room at the University of Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetteville.
Growing up in South Arkansas, Stephens said she was a fan of all the state’s teams but especially the Arkansas Razorbacks located in the state’s upper half.
Stephens said she grew up on a farm outside Camden where a young journalism teacher at Fairview High School in 1981 suggested she pursue a degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas.
That teacher, Jerry Guess has since gotten his own doctorate and is the superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District here in Pulaski County.
Stephens said Guess was a great teacher and he inspired her to pursue her current career and she’s grateful to him.
While studying in Fayetteville, Stephens, a former high school athlete she said she was assigned to do a feature story on Bill Jasinski, a high jumper who also lived in the same dorm she did.
“After I turned that in, Bob Carey, the former UPI reporter in Arkansas who was by then teaching at UA, came to me and said, ‘The Traveler (student paper) needs sportswriters.’ “So I became a Traveler sportswriter at $15 per week. Eventually I was co-sports editor making $30 a week! Later in that same spring semester, Carey came to me and said, ‘The Gazette needs a sports intern.’ ” That’s how I wound up there. I interned there in summer 1984 before my senior year and came back after I graduated.”
The UA faculty recommended her and she became an intern at the Arkansas Gazette in the summer of 1984. It was in that role she became the every first locker room female reports for the Razorbacks.
“The Gazette has truly been The Old Gray Lady of my life and the biggest influence on how my story has turned out. I absolutely loved everything about working there from Day 1 (which I still remember distinctly). Covered little bit of everything — started on the agate desk 3 [p.m. to]-midnight, then golf, high schools, the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference and was in the Razorback bureau in Fayetteville when the Gazette closed. I was the first female sportswriter in the Razorback locker room.”
It was covering Arkansas Tech University where she met her future husband — Ken Stephens a former UCA coach.
“Met my husband, Ken, on the football field at Arkansas Tech when I went there for media day in 1988 while covering the AIC. He was coach at Tech then. We got married in 1996.”
Like most Gazette reporters, its closely was devastating to her she said. She said she did freelance work until Kim Brazzel left the North Little Rock Times and the Maumelle Monitor in 1994 and she took his sports reporting position.
But in between she received two master’s degrees. A masters in journalism from UA and a masters in Teaching Visually Impaired Children from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
It was another Gazette legend — Ernie Dumas — who helped her end up teaching at UCA. He was teaching at UCA and ready to retire.
“The Gazette is the reason I’m at UCA — I ran into Ernie Dumas, who I hadn’t seen since the paper closed, in [the] summer [of] 1999. He was trying to retire but they hadn’t replaced him. He said, ‘Donna Lampkin — you have a master’s, don’t you? I want you to apply for my job.’ By the time I got back home, the chair of the department was calling me. This is my 14th year here,” Stephens said.
Another former Gazette colleague led her to research that stimulated the effort to get her doctorate, Stephens said. “In February 2005, Kevin Clark, a UCA television graduate, came to us with the idea to do a documentary film on the Gazette. Joe Anderson, our chair then, thought it was a good idea and, because of my background, got me involved as producer. The two films changed my life. You don’t realize it sometimes because you’re so close to it that you do have important ‘research interests.’ I have become very passionate about the Gazette and keeping its story alive, and I’ve realized that its loss was far more than a personal loss to me. Many Arkansans and newspaper lovers nationwide mourn its death. Our state is poorer today because of it, and I believe these films, my teaching and my dissertation will help keep it alive, at least on some level.”
Yet another Gazette staffer, David Davies became the final push to get her working on that doctorate, she said. “At The Old Gray Lady premiere at the Clinton library on Oct. 18, 2006, the 15th anniversary of the closing, David Davies, who was education reporter for the Gazette when I was there in the 1980s and is now the dean of the Honors College at Southern Miss, told me, ‘You need to come down and work on your doctorate.’ I told him I couldn’t quit my job and move there for a few years, and he told me they would work with me via on line classes and directed studies plus two summers on campus for my residency. And he said, ‘We want your dissertation to be on the history of the Gazette. We had hours of videotaped interviews we’d done for the film with old Gazette employees, Arkansas politicians and Walter Hussman but obviously were able to use only a fraction of those for the film, so I thought, ‘This is a sign from God. I’m supposed to do this.’ I spent the summers of 2007 and ‘08 going full-time, living in the dorm (and freelancing from afar), and summer 2009 studying abroad with British Studies in Journalism through USM. The Southern Miss faculty was absolutely incredible about working with me.”
“I’m so glad I did the Ph.D. program,” Stephens said. “It has made me a better teacher and certainly a better scholar. And I have a far greater appreciation for what the Gazette meant and what it stood for. I was so young and dumb when I was there, but looking back, it was probably going to take someone young to be able to write the story after a few years of perspective. So maybe it was meant to be.”
Her first job in journalism was at a short-lived competitor to the Hussman newspaper in her hometown — the Ouachita Valley Ledger.
Her favorite story was one she said she wrote about the Arkansas School for the Deaf’s football team.
“I love finding and writing interesting features. You know how it is — if you dig deep enough, everyone has something interesting. I guess the one I remember most was in about 1986. I was assigned a high school football feature on the School for the Deaf team, which was having a banner year, even beating some public schools. I had never been around the deaf culture, and I found it so interesting to go to practice and watch a team where no one spoke. I crafted a feature using a third-person technique of myself watching practice. By the end of the practice, I truly didn’t see deaf kids playing football; I saw a football team practicing. I closed with the kicker, ‘And she couldn’t hear the silence anymore.’ My mentor at U of A, Roy Reed, wrote to me afterward, ‘You’ve become a pro, Donna. I’m proud of you.’ That still makes me glow!
Looking back over Stephen’s break into the male sports world, we asked how here treatment compared to the men she worked alongside.
“I was treated well by almost everyone — those I covered and those I worked with and against. In fact, I think being a young woman served me well with people like football coaches Sporty Carpenter (Henderson) and Buddy Bob Benson (Ouachita Baptist) and Monk Wade (executive director of the Arkansas State Golf Association). It was a new experience for them to deal with a female reporter, but I was not a token. They appreciated my hard work and professionalism. However, I filled in on the UALR beat for a couple of stories while Aris Jackson, the regular beat writer, was out of town. Mike Newell, then the coach, was a bit dismissive of me in the post-game press conference, and I found out later he complained to my boss, James Thompson, ‘Hell, James, you send anybody to cover us. You even sent some [expletive] woman!’
“Although I certainly did not have the trouble some of the women nationally before me did, I was still having to deal with some of that chauvinism and resentment. By the way, I was the third female sportswriter at the Gazette behind Brenda Scisson and Nancy Clark.”
Here best locker room story?
“In 1991, I became the first female reporter to go into the Razorback locker room. The UA had announced its intention of going to the[Southeastern Conference] SEC, which had an equal access policy — either everyone went in or no one went in,” Stephens said.
“Previously, when they were in the Southwest Conference, the sports information director would bring whoever I wanted to interview to me outside while all the male reporters went in, but one of the writers from the Democrat starting hanging around to listen to my interviews instead of going in and getting his own. That made me mad. The Gazette had me write a first-person piece about going into the locker room; I downplayed the experience. I was just doing my job, and the players treated me as a professional. That’s all you can ask.”
Stephens said she couldn’t have done all the degree work, reporting work and everything else she does without the support of her husband.
“I met Ken when he was coaching at Arkansas Tech and I was the Gazette’s Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference beat writer. I had known of him for years but didn’t meet him until August 1988. I remember being in the Gazette’s sports department and hearing Kim Brazzel excitedly say, ‘Stephens is coming back’ after Ken was hired at Arkansas Tech in 1986. He was quite the name in Arkansas sports. Of course, I knew how successful UCA had been under him. He had had a long high school coaching career and won three state championships at North Little Rock. He is in both the UCA Sports and Arkansas Track and Field halls of fame. Although he is older than I am, we have had a wonderful marriage. Sports has been a big part of it. He’s gone with me to cover countless events — CAC football and basketball games, golf tournaments, etc.”