NewsPub Notes

Bob Stephens: Our Congressman with a Bipartisan Sense of Humor

Angela Stanley, head of archives and special collections at the ACC Library, emailed to ask if I knew anyone who might want a bunch of bound volumes of The Athens Observer. Of course I went right over and loaded them into my car. Then I unloaded them. Then I carried them upstairs to my office, with a little help from my friends. Then I dusted them off and lined them up in order against a wall. I must say that the whole operation gave me great respect for the work librarians do. Those things are heavy.

But they are also a treasure trove and fit nicely with the volumes I already had, making a run from 1974–1991. I have already discovered several pieces I had not been able to locate on microfilm.

Just glancing through issues of the old Observer, the weekly paper I was part of before Flagpole came along, is a reminder of just how long we’ve been writing about issues like neighborhood protection, the integrity of downtown, the growth of the university and safety on Prince Avenue. Reading through the old issues is a reminder, too, of just how important an independent, locally owned newspaper is to a town like Athens.


Among the many delights I have encountered is a series written by former Congressman Robert G. Stephens Jr., beginning in 1986—30 years ago.

Bob had an A.B. and an M.A. in history from UGA and also a law degree. He taught history at Georgia for a while, and he had a year of study abroad in Germany in the mid-1930s, where he observed life under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. Bob served in the Army during the war and afterward on the prosecutorial staff at the Nuremburg Trials. Then he came back to Athens to practice law. He served in the Georgia legislature for several terms, and then in 1960 was elected to represent Georgia’s 10th Congressional District, the same year Jack Kennedy was elected president. Bob served eight terms in Congress until he retired in 1976.

I had been bugging Bob to write something for the Observer, and he finally came in and announced that he would write some reminiscences under the title “Cloakroom,” which of course is the gathering place for congressmen when they are not actually out on the floor conducting their business. Bob gave us a very reasonable price, but he wanted it all up front, because he was taking care of a couple of elderly sisters as well as his own large family. I seem to remember that the total came to $500, a steal for what we got in return, but still difficult for us to come up with at that time.

Now, Bob was gregarious and a very witty man, which meant that he had a lot of good friends among his fellow congressmen and a lot of good stories. “Cloakroom” was a great addition to The Observer, and it ran right on the front page as long as I was still at the paper. Each week, Bob regaled us with the behind-the-scenes doings of congressmen current and past, many of whom were familiar figures in the politics of that time.

Given the tenor of our present Congress, it doesn’t seem possible that a member could write with affection, respect and humor about his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. It also no longer seems possible that we could have a congressman with the governmental experience, education and respect for learning that Bob took to Washington.

Bob was descended from several illustrious Georgia families, and though his mind was quick, he of course spoke with a Southern drawl. Once, in a congressional committee hearing, he was questioning a colleague, Rep. Moorehead from Pennsylvania.

Bob repeatedly referred to Mr. “Mohead” this and Mr. “Mohead” that, until the chairman, Rep. Conti of New York, interrupted.

“Excuse me, Congressman,” Conti said to Bob, “don’t you know that the gentleman’s name has an “r” in it?”

“Co’se I know it has an ‘r’ in it, Mr. Chairman,” Bob responded. “If it didn’t, it would be “Moohead.”

The library is slowly working toward having those old Observers in a searchable format online, so someday we may all be able to enjoy Congressman Stephens’ wit and wisdom again. Meanwhile, his son, Judge Lawton Stephens, got a full inheritance of Bob’s sense of humor, which he sometimes displays in conjunction with civic fundraisers or other speeches. They’re always worth the price of admission—much mo’, actually.