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Conservation Pioneer: CALS Philanthropist William Stevens

NC State philanthropist and early conservationist William Stevens helped hundreds of students attend CALS — and his nephew, former NC Senator Richard Stevens, understands the real meaning of “conservation.”

One day when Richard Stevens was a teenager, his uncle asked him if he knew what conservation meant. The answer stuck with him for the last 50 years, as vivid as when it was first spoken.

“I had kind of a tree-hugger impression of what conservation meant,” he said. “And my uncle said, ‘No. Conservation means the wise use of our resources.’ I’ve never forgotten that. The earth is filled with resources, and we can deplete them or use them wisely. And that was his philosophy: replenishment, replanting, reuse, taking care of our earth.”

His uncle, the late William Walton Stevens, was a conservation pioneer who dedicated his life to the cause. He and his wife, the late Emily Inscoe Stevens, didn’t have children, but were committed to fostering future generations of conservationists.

That’s why they established the William Walton and Emily Inscoe Stevens Soil Conservation Fellowship/Scholarship Endowment in 1982, which benefits NC State students studying a variety of subjects related to conservation, including soil science, natural resources, forestry, horticulture and others.

Today, the endowment produces 12-15 scholarships per year.

“My uncle grew up on a farm as one of eight children and lived through the Depression, so I think, in that generation, you appreciated and you conserved what you had,” Richard Stevens said. “As a young person, he had observed the abuse of natural resources and became determined to do something about it.”

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from NC State, William Walton Stevens served in various positions with the state Soil Conservation Service and finished his landmark career in a top post with the state Office of Earth Resources. He also served 32 years in the U.S. Army in active duty or as a reserve, earning the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Stevens received three meritorious citations from the USDA, was elected a fellow in the Soil Conservation Society of America (its highest honor) and was awarded the Governor’s Conservation Award by the Wildlife Federation of North Carolina, in large part, as the ceremony script says, because “he talks, lives, believes, and acts for the causes of wise conservation.”

And he remained committed to NC State, through contributions of estate gifts over the years that supplemented his endowment. He also received the NC State Alumni Association’s Meritorious Service Award in 1995 and endowed the Stevens Nature Center at Cary’s Hemlock Bluffs Park.

“He realized how important NC State was to him as a farm boy in the 1920s to be able to go to college and get a degree, and he and his wife wanted to give back,” Richard Stevens said. “I think he’d be very proud of the accomplishments of literally the hundreds of young people he has helped go through school.”

Interested in seeing the earliest known statewide soil survey of North Carolina?
William Walton Stevens’ hand-drawn soils map from 1936 hangs in the hall near 2315 Williams Hall, and visitors are welcome to come check it out.