Art, Air Force, culturally diverse achievers inspire Sergeant

  • Published
  • By Meredith March
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is the final feature in the series celebrating Black History Month. 

Greatness has always inspired Staff Sgt. Michael Stephens, 66th Mission Support Group information manager. Interactions with his grandfather, high school classmates and Air Force personnel, as well as observations of successful Americans, have influenced Sergeant Stephens' appreciation for integrity, diversity and achievement. 

The sergeant, the second of three boys, grew up in Kansas City, Mo. When he was twelve years old, his father died, making Sergeant Stephens the man of the house. 

He realized the importance of respecting other people, taking care of his family and being a gentleman by watching his grandfather, Charles Kennybrew, he said. 

"My grandfather was very important to me. When I didn't have a father, I watched him, and I adopted a lot of his mannerisms and a lot of his ways," Sergeant Stephens said. 

When the time came to enter high school, Sergeant Stephens faced an enrollment conflict; he had a choice between two exciting possibilities. He could either play football at the local public school, or he could continue to cultivate his drawing and oil painting talents at a fine and performing arts school. At the urging of his mother, he decided to attend the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts. "My mother encouraged me to go to Paseo, because she knew that fine arts was something that I always wanted to pursue," the sergeant said. 

Sergeant Stephens still feels that his decision to go to the academy was the right one. "I elected to follow art, and it really helped me in a lot of ways. It made me a more open minded person because I met people from all walks of life, and they became really, really close friends. I don't think football would have taught me the lessons that I learned. The people that I had the opportunity to meet -- I just couldn't trade those experiences. My friends taught me so much, without even trying to. They accepted me as I accepted them, and it was a good deal," he said. 

During his first year of college, Sergeant Stephens decided to change course by joining the Air Force. He chose the Air Force over other military services for several reasons. "I knew the Air Force would challenge me mentally; I liked the quality of life it offered and I was very interested in the technology and airplanes everyone boasted about so much. I have always had an interest in airplanes and futuristic gizmos," he said. 

Although his father briefly served in the Army near the end of the Vietnam War, Sergeant Stephens entered military service without knowing what to expect, which he found appealing. "I just knew that I would have to be able to handle or fix anything -- any responsibilities or problems -- they threw at me. I knew I could do it; I could prove myself," he said. 

The open-mindedness he cultivated in high school has served him well in the Air Force, which is also composed of people from very diverse racial, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, he said. "The Air Force is a melting pot. It's exactly what the school was, except on a larger scale. You have to be adaptable to everyone and take people for who they are. You can't just judge someone before you know them. I definitely learned that at the Paseo Academy." 

Sergeant Stephens' appreciation for diversity and desire to learn about his own ethnic heritage led him to serve on Hanscom's Black History Month Committee, which coordinated events centered on black Americans' accomplishments throughout February. 

"Whenever I get the opportunity to learn about my past and about people who have had obstacles even greater than the ones I have run into -- and they've overcome those obstacles and have gone on to accomplish great things -- it's inspiring. I read about some of the things that they've done, and I think of that as a map to get through a crazy maze," he said. 

Two of the people who inspire Sergeant Stephens are the late Gordon Parks, a photographer and film director, and Kenneth Chennault, former chief executive officer and current president of American Express. 

Mr. Parks was the first black director for a major Hollywood studio, and his critically acclaimed films were among the first to portray black protagonists. Mr. Chennault overcame a troubled past to preside over and revive a languishing Fortune 500 company. 

"I like Gordon Parks for his vision, and I admire Kenneth Chennault for his ability to overcome all the obstacles to get where he wanted to be," the sergeant said. 

Those men and their goals and achievements represent the American dream for Sergeant Stephens. "The principles and foundations of this country were based on a group of people who wanted to see their dreams realized, and they acted on that. 

Everybody has a dream, but we have to work together and stop fighting to realize those dreams," he said. 

"Black History Month is a great opportunity to recognize black Americans' achievements, Sergeant Stephens said. 

"However, on a more general level, I hope that we all take the time to learn more about everyone of every different kind, because that's what America is about. Even in our most poverty-stricken areas, there's always something worse in other parts of the world because they're not unified. Here in America, we are unified. We stand behind the same morals and the same goals and the same ideas. The only way we can preserve that is by understanding and learning about one another. Hopefully that idea is a contagious one for the rest of the world."