Stephenson Honored with N.C. Award for Literature


Shelby StephensonCall it Shelby Stephenson's year.

The man who has devoted a large part of his career publishing other North Carolina writers is getting the recognition he richly deserves.

On Nov. 5, UNCP English professor Shelby Stephenson was awarded the North Carolina Award for Literature. It is the state's top honor for contributors to the arts, science and public service.

"I don't know what I can do to top this," the poet and editor of Pembroke Magazine said. "I may have to start writing fiction and become famous."

Earlier this year, Stephenson:

  • Was presented the R. Hunt Parker Memorial Award for "significant lifetime contributions to the literary heritage of North Carolina;"
  • Was honored by the N.C. Writer's Conference with a symposium on his work;
  • Was awarded the 2001 UNC Board of Governor's Award for Teaching Excellence, and
  • Published his eighth book of poetry, "Fiddledeedee."

Stephenson, who came to UNCP in 1978, continues to write every day, but rarely in prose, he confesses.

"What if I had become a famous hillbilly musician?" he laughs. "Do we really want to deal with (fame)?"

Stephenson's earthy poems celebrate his rural North Carolina heritage. The Johnston County native believes that North Carolina's soil is fertile for raising writers of all kinds, and he has dedicated himself for 22 years as editor of Pembroke Magazine to nurturing them.

"I can't imagine another state that has produced so many internationally known writers," he said.

Pembroke Magazine No. 34, due out next spring, features Lumberton author Jill McCorkle, and Robert Morgan will be the featured artist for No. 35. Morgan's book, "Gap Creek," was a bestseller, but like many young North Carolina writers, his early poetry found an audience in Stephenson's "little journal."

Stephenson is not so retiring that he does not enjoy a party, and North Carolina threw a big party for him and his fellow honorees.

"Oh, it was just wonderful," he said. "The ballroom was filled with people, around 400."

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley presented the 2001 awards to Stephenson for literature; minister and civic leader W.W. Finlator for public service; bluegrass musician and composer Arthur Smith for fine arts; to poet Kathryn Stripling Byer for literature; to chemist Royce W. Murray in science and to former Lt. Gov. Robert Jordan for public service.

The awards were created in 1961 by the North Carolina General Assembly. Past award winners in literature include McCorkle, Guy Owens, Reynolds Price, Paul Green, Maya Angelou and Clyde Edgerton.

"It was a really wonderful evening," Stephenson said. "It was a night for the arts, sciences and public service, and it was a happy night for me."

N.C. Award recipients will be featured on UNC TV's "Bill Friday's N.C. People" at 8:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 23 and 5:30 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 25.

"This has been an amazing year for me," Stephenson said.

It's not over yet. The bard of Johnston County will offer the UNCP's commencement address on Dec. 15.