At age 99, Robert P. Stephens is the oldest and one of the most revered members of the Consorts, a social club founded 70 years ago by a group of Black men in D.C. The club offers solace and friendship, which all members appreciate, but perhaps none more than Stephens.
The computer was designed to summarize and compute an enormous mass of statistics and was used to tabulate part of the 1950 population census and the entire 1954 economic census.
Born in 1923, in Greensboro, N.C., Stephens suddenly found himself on the leading edge of the computer age — as well as the cutting edge of a slowly desegregating federal bureaucracy.
“I did okay,” said Stephens, who retired from the Census Bureau in 1981, as chief of computer performance evaluation. He had also established the bureau’s first electronic computer maintenance operation and did a lot of teaching and training that helped others move ahead.
Mitigating the stress and strains of the job were his friends in the Consorts. A group of 20 Black men with professional jobs — doctors, lawyers, judges, government officials — gathered once a month for dinner and poker. And, every New Year’s Eve, they held a gala with their wives and other friends at the Mayflower Hotel.
What Stephens enjoyed most was the camaraderie.
“We talk about whatever we wanted to talk about,” Stephens said of the monthly get-togethers. Couldn’t always do that at work, he said. Sometimes, not even at home.
But the challenges posed by the computer age were only starting. The 8-ton Univac 1 — which filled a large room — gave way to the personal desktop computer and eventually became small enough to fit in a shirt pocket.
Stephens was aghast at some of the developments that followed — such as “social media,” in which “friends” could be made with the click of a mouse and dropped just as quickly with a thumbs-down emoji.
“The new generation is not quite like my generation,” he said. “They spend too much time in front of a computer screen wanting to be liked. I think the computer is destroying our youth because they are losing real life-learning experience.”
From 1969 to 2014, Stephens served as chairman of the group’s social committee. He was in charge of putting together the annual New Year’s Eve party, which became the talk of the town.
“Having men like Robert still involved helps us appreciate how much has changed in his lifetime — but also what has not changed,” said Andre Wells, a professional event planner who became the social chairman after Stephens. “We still have the same need for friends. We still have a need for fun. To learn from each other. The younger guys have mentors who can give advice on everything from workplace issues to how to be a good grandparent. For the older guys, being around us helps keep them young.”
Konrad Dawson, a plastic surgeon in D.C., joined the group last year. He said he enjoys getting dressed up and being with good people to ring in the new year. “Too many times in the media, you get these portrayals of what it means to be Black in America that are negative. You still have a lot of people in this country, Black and White, that have no idea that there is a vibrant Black middle class in this country. We are still largely invisible.”
Stephens said he hopes that the quantum leaps in computer power don’t undermine what remains of human interaction. “From what I can see, social media is doing more to tear people apart than bring us together,” he said.
In protest, he tries to have as little interaction with all things computerized as possible.
“When personal computers came out and our daughter wanted one, he dismissed them as ‘toys,’” recalled his wife, Blanche, 92. Not long ago, she said, her husband finally bought a cellphone. “A flip phone, the cheapest one — in case of an emergency,” she said. “It has no camera or any apps. Just makes and accepts calls. But he won’t set up the voice mail. He says if anyone calls and he doesn’t answer, they can call back later.”
For two years during the coronavirus pandemic, the group met over Zoom and also used the internet to order Valentine’s Day gifts for their wives.
Stephens conceded that the “computer has changed the world in good and bad ways.”
Back in the 1950s, Stephens and other members of the group would hold their meetings at Black-owned restaurants, where they could hang around after dining and sometimes even play cards. These days, people can use their smartphones to make reservations at any restaurant. But it’s usually rush in and rush out, no hanging around after.
Moreover, instead of computers making work easier (and ending the use of copy paper), work for many has become harder and the work hours longer.
“It used to be that when Friday work was over, you had the weekend off,” Stephens said. “Now, people are in front of those computer screens all the time. They stare so hard so long they can’t even sleep at night.”
Wells adds that raising a family and working to pay bills can be exhausting, and some people just don’t have time for social gatherings.
Stephens is not one of them. Of course, there are times when he just doesn’t feel like getting up and going out. But the members of Consort will call and offer to pick him up, take him to a meeting and bring him back. Sometimes, just knowing that he’s being held in high regard will energize him.
The Stephenses had reserved a room for New Year’s Eve night at the Mayflower Hotel. Earlier that day, they packed up the tux and gown and prepared to ring in a new year.
Asked if he had a good time, Stephens replied, “It was okay.”
Asked if he had made a New Year’s resolution, he said, “I’m too old for that.”
He’ll be 100 in July. The couple has rarely missed the gala since the 1950s. So, if computers haven’t destroyed the world by Dec. 31, expect him to be ready to party with his social club, not on social media once again.