Que Stephens. Que? It’s a name you don’t forget (and easier remember than his full moniker: Quewanncoii Casanova Stephens Sr.).
But there are many reasons to remember Que Stephens beyond his unusual name.
He works as after-care supervisor for the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation with the Department of Juvenile Services. In short, he oversees a program to help incarcerated juveniles make proper decisions after their release.
A retired Army lieutenant colonel, he grew up in the segregated South, then followed college with two tours in Vietnam where he was wounded in the 1968 Tet offensive.
Instructing the ROTC program at West Virginia State University brought him to the area he now calls home. He loved the school, coached the football teams and helped there any way he could.
In return, the school inducted him into the ROTC Hall of Fame. This year, they’ve named him to the West Virginia State Sports Hall of Fame.
His career includes a stint as director of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission and an appointment to the parole board.
He sings in the church choir and the Martin Luther King Jr. Male Chorus. He’s active in the St. Albans Rotary.
All accomplishments pale compared to two transforming tragedies. He buried two sons. Hug your children, he says; tell them you love them. That message motivates him to continue his child-saving mission with Juvenile Services despite his age. He turns 74 in September.
“I was born in Washington, D.C. My mother was a math teacher. She decided to move back to Plant City, Florida, where I was raised.
“I went to segregated schools, but what I liked about that was that I was nurtured by family members. The church was there and the school was next door. So you didn’t get out of line. Unlike today, you had the family there.
“The Klan rode by my house a few nights. They would come into the city with the lights on and go down the main street, a one-way street. They went in the wrong direction and got to what’s called the bottom and the drunks were out, and there was a fistfight and the police had to be called in to save the Klan.
“I didn’t know my father. Women nurtured me, and I think that’s what made me stronger. All my teachers were females and Momma being Momma made sure I stayed in line.
“My focus was on the military. I knew early on I was going to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee where Momma went. That was segregated at the time.
“I had four uncles in the military. Two brothers served in Korea at the same time. One was a private and the other a lieutenant. The private was killed in Korea. His brother came home, got married and was on his honeymoon when he got killed in a car wreck. My mother was killed in a car wreck. So it’s either war or it’s a car wreck.
“The military branches you according to their needs. I was commissioned to go into the Armor Branch, tanks. My first tour was in California where I met the mother of my first two children. Then I went off to Vietnam with the 11th Army Calvary Regiment. I got wounded in the Tet Offensive of 1968.
“I had a platoon of five tanks. We had been in Cambodia and went into this village to pick up Viet Cong that were going to give up, but it was really a reinforced North Vietnamese battalion. There were infantrymen attached to our armored unit out in the field and some were wounded. I had to move my tank over there and I got them inside of my tank so they could be medivaced. My armored personnel carrier was hit. I lost my driver. That was the worst thing. I lost two men that day.
“The thing about being inside a tank is that you are with four or five men and you know everything about them. They respect you as their platoon leader. You become very close to them. You know about their moms and dads and the child they never saw.
“I was there seven months on that tour and in the hospital three months. The explosion went into my eyes. I put my hands on my head and I was bleeding. I had metal in my hands and face. They had to cut open my face and a piece of my leg.
“I was an officer. I serve my country. Like my first tour, I could go to war, but I couldn’t go to a restaurant. Love of country was part of being nurtured.
“On my second tour, I served with David Hackworth, probably the most decorated person in Vietnam. He died of Agent Orange. He was quite a man.
“That second tour, we had a football game on the airfield. We didn’t realize this colonel had bet some money on our winning the game. On one side, you had all these officers, and on the other, these noncommissioned officers who had not gone to college. Col. Hackworth comes out and chews us out and said we had to win this game. ‘Que is the quarterback and you do exactly as he says.’ We won the game. My love of football started then.
“I came to West Virginia State in 1984 to teach ROTC. Before that, I was teaching ROTC at Prairie View A&M, a historic black college in Texas.
“My grandmother taught me two Psalms, the 23rd and 121st. It’s a family joke that I ended up in West Virginia because the 121st says ‘I look to the hills from which cometh my help.’ I say those two psalms in my car every day and say a prayer and get on with my life.
“I taught Special Forces at Fort Bragg too, another part of getting to West Virginia. It’s amazing the things that happened in my life that put me in West Virginia.
“The Q Course officers course was at Fort Bragg. I was in charge of creating Special Forces officers. I was teaching and I liked that. The planes I had to use were 130s, the ones you see flying around here. They were excellent pilots. The next assignment was at Prairie View and then West Virginia State.
“I have guys who are 58 years old who still contact me about things that happened in their lives. Like Ed Dickerson. They named the stadium Dickerson Stadium. His family is fourth or fifth generation at State. He’s a plastic surgeon. That’s one of my commissionees.
“In ’86, I started coaching at State. They are honoring me this year with the Sports Hall of Fame. Three honorees are players and I coached two of them. The ROTC program has put me in the Hall of Fame, and I’m not even a State graduate.
“I retired in 1989. Gaston Caperton appointed me to the Human Rights Commission. Phyllis Carter was executive director and she wanted to go to DHHR. She came to my office to convince me to retire. I had orders in hand to go back to Germany. I loved Germany. I was a lieutenant colonel then. That lady convinced me to retire and I took her job.
“Then Gov. Caperton moved me to the parole board. I did human rights for five years, the parole board for six. I moved from the parole board to kids. Manfred Holland was director of this division. I’ve been here since 2000 and I love it. I’m the after-care supervisor.
“Kids are adjudicated by the system. Judges sentence them to this division. I have case managers who interact with that child while they are incarcerated. The idea is to enhance their minds and focus them on going back home and doing the right thing.
“For some, it works. This is rural West Virginia. Where does a child go? They can’t go off to be with an aunt in Chicago. They go back to the same environment and behaviors they had before and while they were incarcerated. They go back to what they know.
“You’re talking about the way a kid thinks. I call it stinking thinking. You try to attack the way the child thinks and maybe they will get it. It doesn’t make sense to get involved in crime and drugs or hang around the wrong people who are negative to your lifestyle.
“You beat your head against the wall, but it’s your job. I tell them to save one life every day. Sometimes it works and sometimes the street is more powerful. Easy money. In their mindset, $100 or $1,000 is a lot of money, so let’s go break into this car or rob this elderly person.
“I love children. Since the death of my boys, my thing is, ‘Hug your child every day.’ You get in their face and you hug them and say to them, ‘I love you.’ Every day. Even if you have a job that brings you home at 10 at night, don’t miss it. You go to their room and if they are asleep, kiss them.
“That has been my focus since the death of my son, who was low-functioning autistic. The only word he knew was no. But he could hum the hymn, ‘Blessed Assurance.’ He was 28. My other son, Que Deuce, was 46 when he died of a heart attack. He was Mr. State at West Virginia State’s homecoming. He lived with me on campus. We were in the same fraternity. He had a master’s in counseling.
“I have a daughter retired from the military after 28 years. She has a Ph.D.
“I sing bass in the Martin Luther King Junior Male Chorus. We sang for Robert C. Byrd’s funeral at the Capitol and for the ceremony for the 29 dead coal miners in Beckley. President Obama was at both those events.
“I sing in the First Baptist Church choir. And I’m the photographer for the church and a deacon in the church. The church is part of my existence, my roots.
“I had prostate cancer in December 2015. I was OK until recently, but a red flag has popped up. I’m going to Lexington tomorrow to follow up. All of my stuff is just prayer. I just keep praying.
“There are a number of cancer survivors in the chorus and they solidify what a family is all about even though we are not related. They are an excellent support system.
“I’m a counselor, too, so I self-meditate. I believe in what my grandmother told me — read the 23rd and 121st Psalms, say your prayers, treat people with decency and respect and hope you get all that back. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but you just keep on keeping on.
“My hopes are with our kids. I worry about our children. They don’t communicate. They’re caught up in their phones and now adults are caught up in it. The church and faith has left a lot of homes. We are preoccupied with stuff. Society says it is important. What’s important is that I love you as a person. We all have commonalities. We can share with each other.
“I don’t want to retire. I have work to do. If I can affect the life of a child …”