Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Local historian dies at 92

by RANDY WELLS on August 15, 2011 2:45 AM

When Clarence Stephenson was earning a master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh in 1946, Professor Alfred James, teaching a course on the history of western Pennsylvania, made a lasting impression on him.

"He said that local history has been neglected, and a lot of it is lying under the surface, waiting for someone to do something with it," Stephenson recalled in a 2000 interview in the Gazette.

Stephenson became the "someone" who broke through the surface of local history around Indiana. Over the next five decades he researched leads, studied documents, made notes, collected maps, cataloged facts, cross-referenced information and wrote about Indiana County's people, places and events. The result is regarded as the most comprehensive history of Indiana County ever written -- "Indiana County: 175th Anniversary History."

Stephenson died Saturday in Virginia. He was 92.

"He had a lifelong devotion to telling the story of Indiana County," said Colleen Chambers, executive director of the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County. Stephenson was a longtime board member and former president of the society.

"We tried to make sure he knew how much we appreciated him," Chambers said.

And as for his chronicling of the county's history, "He really made it come alive," she said.

The five volumes in Stephenson's 175th anniversary history contain nearly 3,700 pages and 1,000 illustrations and photographs. It includes extensive footnotes and sources, appendices, indices by subject and by surname of prominent county residents, and a gazetteer for the county. Stephenson's story of Indiana County is more amazing because he researched, organized and wrote it without the aid of a word processor or computer.

"I know nothing about computers and I don't want to know about them," Stephenson said in the 2000 interview. "I think I did pretty well with the cards."

The cards he referred to are thousands of 4-by-6-inch note cards, still stored in boxes by the historical society.

"Why local history? Why record the details of local life in the past?" Stephenson asked in the preface to Volume I of his histories. "I have found that people have more interest in and a better understanding of things within their own … experience."

He lamented that many Americans do not have a deeper understanding of their nation's history because of the practice of telling America's story in broad, sweeping generalizations and descriptions that are remote from their personal experience.

"Many of our history textbooks, somewhat like a skeleton, give only the outlines of what once was. The flesh and human personal interest are lacking," Stephenson wrote in the preface.

Another of Professor James' recommendations remained with Stephenson.

"He stressed that we should do original research, go to sources which have never been published," including old letters, diaries and documents, Stephenson said. "On everything I found I made notes on the cards, and arranged them by subject."

Compiling the history took nearly half a century because Stephenson could not devote all his attention to it. During the same years he was teaching school in Clymer, working as an adviser on history education for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction and as a caseworker for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. His avocation as historian was pushed back into the evenings, weekends and during vacations.

To document his stories he traveled to the Library of Congress and to museums and historical societies in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New England. Work on his five-volume history occasionally was set aside while he penned dozens of newspaper and magazine articles and several shorter books on individual aspects of the county's history, including the Pennsylvania Canal and the impact of slavery on mid-19th century Indiana County.

Volume I of the comprehensive history, published by the A.G. Halldin Publishing Co. of Indiana, was released in 1978 to coincide with the county's 175th anniversary. The remaining four volumes were published over the next 17 years, but did not appear in sequence.

Stephenson financed the publication of Volume I through advance subscriptions. He then was able to publish succeeding volumes with the revenue from selling the previous books.

"Nobody should ever write a history and expect to make money," Stephenson said. "It's really a risky business. I didn't make a nickel on it. I insisted on color pictures and that cost extra money."

In 1994, Stephenson donated all the remaining copies of volumes I through IV to the Historical and Genealogical Society for the benefit and support of the society.

His comprehensive history is the society's best-selling item, and a limited number of the books remain available for purchase at the society at 200 S. Sixth St. in Indiana.

John Busovicki, of Clymer, a retired Indiana University of Pennsylvania math professor whose avocation is also Indiana County history, considers Stephenson his mentor.

In 1947, when Busovicki was a third-grade student in Clymer, Stephenson organized two groups -- The George Clymer Junior and Senior Historians -- to begin gathering material for the county's sesquicentennial in 1953.

"What he foresaw was the 'Clymer-Cherryhill Story,'" a book about the history of the town and surrounding township, Busovicki said.

Stephenson got volunteers to write material for the book. A student who had a father who worked in the Clymer brickyard was asked to write about the brickyard. Stephenson did the same to collect stories about the area's other businesses, churches, schools and organizations.

As his contribution to the project, Busovicki was asked to collect photographs and postcards from the townspeople. That turned into a lasting hobby, and today Busovicki has a collection of 20,000 old images of the county. When Busovicki retired in 2000, it was Stephenson who persuaded him to compile his own book, "Postcard History Series: Indiana County."

"He was a very down-to-earth person," Busovicki said of Stephenson. "If you took an interest in something, he relished that. … He was very genuine."

Later in his life, Stephenson divided his time between a winter home in Florida and the East Mahoning Township farm where he was born and raised.

He once said he occasionally would get annoyed when a student asked him to tell the whole story about something that happened in Indiana County.

Stephenson usually suggested that the student find a copy of his book, and added, "I think I covered it pretty well in there."

A public memorial service for Clarence Stephenson will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Marion Center Presbyterian Church.

An obituary will be published Thursday and Friday in the Gazette.

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