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Most outstanding people

Ralph Stephens' volunteer role changes with family demands

A longtime friend of Ralph Stephens calls Stephens and his wife, Sissy, "two of the most outstanding people in this community. They think you can change things one child at a time. And they live that example."

Jim Geiser, executive director of Big Buddies, remembers Stephens from the early days of the organization.

"He was one of the first Big Buddies that I knew when I got involved with the program. He was in law school. I guess that was the early 1980s.

"He stayed with his Little Buddy through high school. He helped us put together a scholarship program for Little Buddies, he and Sissy."

Stephens, 42, a tax partner in the Baton Rouge firm of Postlethwaite and Netterville, has been recognized for his community work by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

Stephens wasn't in San Francisco, however, to accept the award. His wife was expecting their third child any day, and Stephens wanted to stay close.

The 10 to 15 hours a week Stephens spends with his feet under some non-profit's boardroom table is down from the 20 hours he used to put in each week as a volunteer.

"It's not a progression I like," he said. "Before I got married, I coached eighth- and ninth-grade basketball at Catholic High. I might chaperone a dance. I had more time. Now, I spend time with my own kids."

Stephens' volunteer work on Baton Rouge civic boards has touched a lot of Baton Rougeans.

Stephens misses the days in the gym and the personal contact he once enjoyed as a volunteer. His benefactors say Stephens' presence is felt.

"I've known Ralph since 1969 when we started Catholic High as freshmen," said Greg Brandao, now principal at Catholic High.

"He coached the eighth-grade basketball team and only stopped after his own family started. Probably half the class was involved with basketball. He was an unofficial counselor to the eighth-graders. He kept track of them, helped them make the transition to high school."

For 16 years, Stephens, a lawyer as well as a CPA, has taught a business law course at Catholic High. He isn't paid.

"I give them a little taste of law. They read cases and statutes. I understand a student once said, 'Mr. Stephens doesn't know this is an elective.' It's not an easy A."

Born in New Orleans, Stephens came to Baton Rouge in 1965 when his father was transferred from California. Stephens' father, Andrew, was a CPA with Kaiser.

The family lived near St. Thomas More Church. Andrew Stephens did volunteer work at the church and served on the diocesan board. Rita Stephens stayed home to rear four children.

Ralph Stephens was 31 when he married Sissy Wall, a computer systems consultant from Baton Rouge.

Of his bachelor days, the 6-foot-7-inch Stephens says, "Some people liked to go to bars. I liked coaching basketball."

Stephens gets up at 5.30 a.m. to jog. During tax season, he leaves the office at 6:30 p.m. and is back in the office a couple of hours later to work until midnight. He teaches his class at Catholic High at 7:30 a.m. during the school term.

Stephens tries to work his volunteer commitments into his business day.

The firm encourages volunteerism, Stephens said.

"We sell our reputation. Baton Rouge is our home. We want it to be a good place."

Non-profit organizations are always trying to recruit bankers, lawyers and CPAs to sit on their boards, Stephens said. People in those professions know where the money is, the thinking goes.

Stephens brings something else to the board table, said Kathryn Grigsby, executive director of the Hospice Foundation of Greater Baton Rouge.

"He brings a lot of insight. He can always be depended on to be the voice of reason," she said.

The Hospice Foundation doesn't pressure its board members to raise money, Grigsby said.

"That was Ralph's idea. He said, 'Do we want them for their talents or because they have money to give?' "

The award Stephens received for his community work included cash donations to organizations of his choice. He designated Boys Hope of Baton Rouge and Myriam's House.

Boys Hope pays for the educations of at-risk boys who live in a residence provided by the organization. Myriam's House provides transitional housing and jobs for homeless women.

He picked Boys Hope and Myriam's House because both rely on donations, Stephens said.

The work of other volunteers has touched Stephens' life since his mother's stroke a year ago.

"It's amazing to me the people who come to help out," he said.