2016-10-13 / Life in Leelanau


The family behind a home that all of Leelanau is talking about
By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff

SOME 70 workers were making progress on the Stephenson home earlier this week. SOME 70 workers were making progress on the Stephenson home earlier this week. The person who is building the biggest home in Northern Michigan is a family man who carries with him a love of Leelanau County rooted, one could say, in the coal fields of Scotland.

That’s where Richard J Stephenson’s great-grandfather grew up. He immigrated to a small town in southern Indiana only to develop black lung disease in America’s coal mines. The year was 1895.

“In his diary,” Stephenson said of his great grandfather, “a doctor paints this wonderful picture (of Leelanau County), saying there is a place you should live as much as you can. It’s a place called the Land of Delight. The Indians call it Leelanau.”

Actually, it’s a misnomer to say Dick Stephenson is building the home, which will preside over one of the finest shorelines in the county. Half of the collaborative effort comes from his wife, Dr. Stacie Stephenson, a physician and acclaimed lecturer on nutrition based medicine.

A ROCK at the entrance off M-22 marks the entrance to the new Stephenson home. A ROCK at the entrance off M-22 marks the entrance to the new Stephenson home. They make a dynamic couple, possessing the means to fly across the globe to care for corporate interests and a sense of community that compels them to organize gala fundraisers that provide millions of dollars to nonprofits.

Both are Libertarians, believing deeply in individual freedom and the benefits of free markets, which makes them somewhat unusual in the American economy of today that routinely interweaves government and business interests.

County residents probably want to know how Richard Stephenson, who is diminutive in stature — he’s a wiry 5-foot-6 former Wabash College wrestler — but certainly not in energy, came to be so wealthy. The answer is relatively simple: hard work, something he learned from his lineage.

Stephenson’s grandfather, the son of that coal-mining immigrant, started working at a small-town mercantile in Indiana at the age of 8 and owned the store 10 years later. Then he came to own two banks — and even the coal mines worked by his father.

In fact, John Forrester Brown made enough money to buy what passed as a car at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and take his father over rutted, dirt roads to the Land of Delight.

“What did they find?” asks Stephenson, rhetorically. “A town with roughneck lumberjacks on one side of the river, fishermen on the other side of the river, and an iron ore smelter.”

So much for all that healthy, clean air.

Brown, however, was impressed. He built a home in 1908 along the Leland River and bought three nearby lots. He even bought 15 feet of frontage on Nedows Bay for a bathhouse, and another parcel on Carp River for a boathouse.

A couple decades later came the Depression, which hit the banking industry particularly hard. Brown sold all he had — including the properties in Leland — to keep his banks, Stephenson said, which did result in enough equity to meet federal guidelines required for him to retain ownership.

But Brown was a Republican, and partisan politics ruled the day. Federal regulators forced the privately-held banks to close.

“He was double crossed. He was a broken man. He never recovered,” Stephenson recalled.

A love of Leelanau County had already been instilled in Stephenson’s mother. His father was a druggist and family doctor in Sheridan, Ind., with an entrepreneurial spirit that led the family into other pursuits. Stephenson recalled a time when polio was thought to be transmitted by flies. His family bought a Navy surplus fogging machine, attached it to a Jeep, and sprayed for bugs in local communities.

Stephenson also delivered Grit magazine and the Indianapolis Star.

“Not everybody would pay you. Sometimes they couldn’t, and sometimes they weren’t home even if they were home. I increased the price to 30 cents after a third week behind, and my accounts receivable started to diminish,” he said.

His summertime memories are of Leland.

“Mother and father brought the kids here. But they never owned anything. They rented a room above a garage from the Pendergast family,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson attended nearby Wabash College, then was accepted to law school at Northwestern University. Somewhere along the way he took time off to help in the Presidential election campaign of Richard Nixon — his first run, which was unsuccessful in 1960.

During grad school he pooled resources to start a private banking company — no doubt his grandfather was smiling — that became successful beyond his wildest dreams. By the time he received a diploma, his bank had 54 employees.

“I was too busy to take the bar,” he recalled.

While Stephenson is known mostly as founder and board chair of the privately owned Cancer Treatment Centers of America, he says he made his fortune in private banking. His firms have structured successful deals across the globe using one basic strategy: “We look for the best people, people who adhere to ethical principles,” he said. “You try to go with the best partners in those communities with ethical principles, as long as they back our moral code.”

Stephenson renewed his family’s ownership in the county, buying a home on north Lake Leelanau east of the Leland Country Club. From their porch, the Stephensons can view progress on their new home.

Richard Stephenson started Cancer Centers of America in 1988 after his mother’s death from bladder cancer. Her loss could have been avoided, Stephenson believes, had doctors better explained treatment options that were available at the time.

He has steered clear of publicly owned companies, which helps explain a lack of public information available about him. He has granted few interviews to the media.

An online search provides far less information about Stephenson than most people of similar means. Included are videos of speeches he’s given, Chicago Tribune coverage of a nasty divorce that carried on for seven years, and several humanitarian awards.

There’s scarcely a mention of Leelanau County, where his heart lies.

“My earliest memory of life is being in Leland as a 2-year-old and my father taking me over more than one trout stream that are tributaries to Lake Michigan,” Stephenson recalled.

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