Donor Spotlight: Sally Stevens
By Tony Scott
Sally Stevens served as secretary to six NIU presidents from 1964 until her retirement in 1996. She has since given generously to NIU, in the form of scholarships and support of the arts, athletics facilities and the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center.
When Sally Stevens began her position as secretary to NIU President Leslie A. Holmes on Sept.1, 1964, the cost for a student to attend NIU was around $1,300 a year, including tuition, room, board, and books.
A new house cost around $19,000, and a new car around $4,000. Lyndon Johnson had been president for a little over 10 months, and a fresh new band from Liverpool, England, had taken over the nation’s airwaves.
When Stevens retired in 1996 as secretary to NIU President John E. La Tourette, she had served as secretary to six NIU presidents over 32 years.
Following her retirement, Stevens established the Sally Stevens Scholarships in the Arts, which gives annual support to three students, one each in the School of Art and Design, the School of Theatre and Dance, and the School of Music.
In 2018, to honor her for her giving, including a bequest through her estate to continue funding her scholarships, a second-floor theater in the renovated Stevens Building was named the Sally Stevens Players Theater, also affectionately known as “The Sally.”
“Being single, I don’t have children; this was the love of my heart, really,” Stevens said of NIU. “When a need came along, or a new building came along, I felt like I wanted to be a part of it. Making funding available in many ways helps a lot of students.”
Stevens, 93, is still active in her community and passionate about everything NIU, the arts and athletics.
Shortly before retiring, Stevens moved to a duplex in Oak Crest in DeKalb and has lived there ever since. She is involved in the complex’s events and stays busy in a variety of local organizations.
Stevens was born in DeKalb, but her family moved to Sycamore when she was still an infant, and lived there for most of her life. Her father was a sales representative for a tailor-made clothing company in Chicago, and his territory included Illinois, Kentucky and southern Wisconsin. Her mother was a homemaker. She had one older brother who passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 96, she said.
Stevens graduated from Sycamore High School in 1948 and was recently inducted into the school’s Alumni Hall of Fame. After high school, she received a bachelor’s degree from Lake Forest College in 1952.
After college, she worked for 12 years as the high school secretary and school board treasurer for the Board of Education at the Sycamore School District.
Stevens said she was asked by Holmes personally to come and work for him as a secretary, and she accepted.
“I had been at Sycamore for 12 years, and I thought it would be nice to work for a university. The students were a little closer to my age,” she said.
The 1960s saw a lot of change on NIU’s campus, including the construction of new facilities and the hiring of new faculty, but Stevens said she took the changes in stride.
“Right after I came, in 1965 through 1967, there was a lot of growth on campus,” she said. “That’s when a lot of faculty came in. It was a lot to learn and a lot to adjust to, but those are good memories now.”
When asked about how she kept the same job for six NIU presidents for more than 30 years, Stevens said she treated people kindly and that people on campus, whether it was visiting dignitaries or faculty and staff, knew her.
“I still have people say, 'Sally, you were the first person I saw when I went into the president’s office,'” she said. “And if they came in with a concern on their mind and left with a smile on their face, that was a good thing too. I made friends that way.”
While each of the presidents had their own personality and style of leadership, Stevens said she adjusted and worked well with all of them.
“I felt very comfortable with every president,” she said. “Most of the time, I think they felt that I was part of their family rather than just their employee.”
As secretary, she worked with the presidents and their wives when they entertained dignitaries and faculty and staff. Much of the entertaining was done at the president’s home.
“They invited faculty and staff to come to their home, and I would plan those events for the wives of the presidents,” she said. “And I think that kind of help, for them, made me a part of their families. So I have some really good memories of those people.”
Stevens said that when she worked at NIU, and was living in Sycamore at the time, she would often come home from work and then immediately drive back to NIU to attend some kind of artistic function, whether it be a dance performance, a concert, or other event. At the time, such events were all free, she said.
Supporting students involved in the arts is her way of giving back to all they have given her over the years.
“I thought, look at all the entertainment I’ve had, and I wanted to make up for that,” she said.
Stevens encourages others to give to NIU and to support NIU students in their endeavors.
“Don’t wait, because the need is there all the time, no matter what the criteria,” she said. “There’s always a need to help young people, and I think the more we help young people the better our world will be.”