Sandra Anne Stephens passed away on Aug. 19, 2017, after a long and courageous battle with ovarian cancer, at the age of 70. All who knew her can honestly say she was an exceptional woman who was passionate about education and self-improvement.
There are many at Rose State College who knew her well; faculty and students still seated for classes today and many others who have since moved on to other institutions and vocations. She took pride in her role as tutor on everything from college algebra to literature to anatomy and physiology and, by our estimates, she had more than 5,000 students in her 30 years at RSC. With her passing, we've heard from many of them who remember her and how she made such a difference in their academic careers.
Sandra was born on Oct. 17, 1946, in Wayne, Neb., the daughter of Air Force Master Sgt. Edwin and Anne Tammen. She was the eldest of three siblings.
"When I was young, I was scared of imaginary monsters," said Pam, her younger sister. "Sandy made this terrifying mask I could hang on my wall above my bed to scare the monsters away.”
Coming of age in the 1950s, she fed her intellect to develop a smarter response to the glass ceilings of the day. An honor student at Baudette High School at Baudette, Minn., she was a confirmed polymath with an expansive memory that allowed her to acquire and retain large amounts of information with crystal clarity. Pam and her brother, Paul, described how she always had books with her - not one or two, but dozens. And it never seemed to be the same book twice!
She graduated from high school with a full ride scholarship for Cedar Falls Iowa Teachers College and it was no surprise that Sandra wanted to be an English teacher. Still, for a woman to obtain a scholarship of any measure in 1963 was rare; a full ride was unheard of. At the time of her graduation, she knew Spanish, French and Finnish. In coming years, she would add more languages when time allowed.
After Cedar Falls, Sandra joined the Air Force where she met and married the love of her life, Stanley Stephens, who was also an Airman.
"It was my birthday and I saw [Sandra] walk out of the library with her arms full of books," said Stanley. "She looked so cute, this small blonde with her arms loaded down. I was determined to meet her.”
Stan worked up the courage to ask Sandra out on date -- they went to see Lawrence of Arabia. Less than eight months later,they were married.
They left Kessler AFB, Miss., together for many tours of overseas duty in England where she was the first uniformed U.S. active-duty enlisted spouse at Royal Air Force (Base) Wethersfield, working for the 20th Combat Support Group Personnel Office while Stanley worked radio relay communications for RAF bases. In an age where computers weren't on every desk and punch cards held sway, Sandra proved an invaluable resource for her command - as people who knew her later described her, "she was the Internet before the Internet.”
While in England, Sandra and her husband lived first in a historic sixteenth-century cottage that was once occupied by Oliver Cromwell (the first -- and only -- Lord Protector of the British Commonwealth) in the village of Little Bardfield, Essex. The novelty of two Airmen living in such a historic property struck the fancy of their higher headquarters and, on Aug. 6, 1966, the European edition of Stars and Stripes ran a front page article on them and the adventure of "going native" on overseas assignment. As her family grew with the arrival of their two children, they later moved into the shadow of Pinewood Studios. Sandra was active with an acting society -- from stage drama to pantomime, the troupe demonstrated diverse talents and whom many established directors, producers and actors arose. Her children recall Sandra taking them to see the 1978 Superman movie sets, witnessing explosions from James Bond blockbusters, and seeing the costumes and sets of the television show, Doctor Who (Sandra was a Whovian since before that title became commonplace, complete with hat and 20-foot-long scarf).
After her husband's various tours of duty, they retired from military life at Midwest City, Okla., but because both firmly believed in the value of education, they became regular fixtures at Rose State College. In 1984, while Sandra focused on her Pre-Journalism and English associates, she worked for the 15th Street News, securing advertisers for the then-weekly school publication and building the newspaper into a reliable information resource for students. In those days, movie theaters provided free tickets in return for the 15th Street News running heir ads -- often because ads weren't finalized until the last minute, creating a challenge for the newspaper staff. And there was the smell of the glue from the days when cut and paste required wax, glue guns and proportion calculations to fit ads in among the field of copy. She never liked the smell of the cut-and-paste process -- and Sandra once lamented that it took days to get rid of the smell -- but she liked the pressure of the deadlines and being able to hold a finished product in her hands at the end of the day.
Over the course of time, Sandra, her husband, and both children also graduated from RSC, and later other academic institutions. After completing a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Oklahoma City University, Sandra then returned to Rose State College, where over the course of 30 years, she became a mainstay within the college's tutoring center. Estimates are that, over those 30 years, she tutored more than 5,000 students on subjects ranging from English Composition to Algebra to History, although her favorite areas of instruction were Anatomy and Physiology and Medical Terminology.
Her first encounter with the cancer that would eventually take her life was met with a style and grace that belied the ferocity she felt toward this invader in her system. Having taught for decades on the human body, she engaged with the doctors on a level that they found both charming and insightful and that rapport did much to lift her spirits. She kept focused on the path in front of her and leaned on her family and friends when necessary, but wasn't afraid to use some of her strength to support them in return. In 2011, her cancer withdrew and she continued her tutoring while encouraging her family to live life fuller and to feed embers of hope into better futures. The resurgence of her cancer in Spring 2016 came as a surprise, but the staff of the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center did their best in conjunction with the Stephenson Cancer Center, to give her additional quality living when the odds were measured in just weeks. To the VA, her family would like to say thank you.
Both Sandra and Stanley were appreciative of the VA medical staff because Sandra had been diagnosed at the onset with Stage IV Ovarian Cancer on Oct. 31, 2010.
While the VA often gets bad press, they are an efficient health care system that separates life and death for thousands of Americans every day -- and Sandra was no different. The VA could procure the medications and chemo unavailable in the United States and treat her promptly -- her first chemo was less than six weeks after her initial diagnosis in 2010, evidence that the OKC VA medical team were the professionals needed to save her. While she fought to beat her cancer diagnosis -- going on to continue living her life loudly and unashamedly -- she was ultimately admitted to the medical center where she passed away days later. She bore great love and respect for the VA staff, and her family is grateful for their outstanding care and support for those seven years. For many of those years, she could get by with a quarterly screening to track her tumor count, but the cancer returned in early 2017 and began inflicting a severe toll in June 2017. Sandra died at the OKC VA Medical Center, where the medical staff tended to her final needs and surrounded by her family
Surviving her are her husband of 51-and-a-half years, Stanley Stephens, of Midwest City, Okla.; her daughter, Christine Stephens of Washington State; her son, Andrew Stephens of Washington, D.C.; her brother, Paul (Diann) Tammen of Middletown, Ohio; her sister, Pamela (Gary) Slack of Freeburg, Ill.; a nephew, Jason (Megan) Slack; nieces, Amanda (Luke) Peterson, Elizabeth (Mike) Johnson, and Laura (Patrick) Robins, as well as numerous cousins, grandnieces, and grandnephews. She is also survived by more than 20,000 books of all genres and classifications, having read an average of one book every day for more than 50 years.
While she lived, she was a teacher, an Airman, a mother, and a teacher again - but she was always a fighter. Now her family, friends and students can call her an inspiration. She wouldn't want people to mourn her departure, but to grow closer to their loved ones. Her husband asks that those veterans who have served with honor register with their local VA to facilitate care later in their lives.
Burial services were held on Aug. 30, 2017, at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Mo., with military honors rendered. Her epitaph reads "I'm going on an adventure." In the lands beyond us, whether it's having tea with Agatha Christie, trading quips with Dorothy Parker or just chatting with Terry Pratchett, her family is confident that she'll find more of the adventures she craved.