In honor and in gratitude of one of its most beloved graduates, Furman University’s Board of Trustees has proclaimed April 17, 2021, as “Tommy Stevenson Day.”
Stevenson ‘65, the long-time proprietor of Greenville’s famed Country Ham House, recently announced his plan to retire later this spring following 36 years in the restaurant business — a span that has seen him provide Friday evening meals to Furman football teams, as well as numerous other Paladin squads, groups, fans, and, yes, even opponents.
“Whether he was feeding our teams or hosting dignitaries from around the world, Tommy Stevenson is the epitome of the Furman graduate, someone who cares deeply about his community and gives back in every way possible,” said Furman University President Elizabeth Davis. “We are honored to have Tommy as an alumnus and a friend.”
“I am so happy we are able to honor Tommy Stevenson for his incredible service and commitment to Furman University and the entire Greenville community,” said Paladin head football coach Clay Hendrix ‘86, who as a player, assistant coach, and head coach has experienced first-hand Stevenson’s dedication to his alma mater. “He has done so much for so many people. His generosity, friendship and support of Furman Football has been instrumental in our football tradition and in the development of so many great young men. He has earned some much needed rest, and we wish him great health and enjoyment as he begins this new chapter in his life.”
A Winnsboro, S.C., native, Stevenson fell in love with Furman early on and realized his dream to attend the university.
“I always wanted to go to Furman. I spent my first year at North Greenville (then a junior college) and transferred over my sophomore year. I went to all the football practices and games, and developed friendships with the players, guys like Sam Wyche ‘66, Billy Turner ‘66, Doug Stacks ’64, and many others — great football players and even better people.”
Stacks didn’t miss the opportunity to shine the light on his longtime friend, who he called “one of the greatest people I’ve had the pleasure to know and a great friend of Furman University.
“He was like a brother to me in school, and I’m just sorry he didn’t play football, because he was big enough, strong enough, and mean enough to do it. Everybody who meets Tommy and has been fortunate enough to know him thinks of him as a friend, and he’s never let any success go to his head and never abandoned any friend or anybody in need. I love the guy. He’s meant a lot to Furman and to me over the years.”
Following graduation Stevenson, who credits his mother, Mildred, in developing his love of cooking, opened a restaurant equipment business, which served a client list covering all of Greenville and beyond.
“I started catering when I was in the equipment business, and in 1985 I bought the Country Ham House,” at the time located at the corner of present day Pete Hollis Boulevard and Mulberry Street.
“When I acquired the Country Ham House, Vince Perone ‘54 was providing meals for the football team, but soon after that he closed up and I stepped in and have done it ever since.
“We were there for 12 years (at our first location), but after the landlord increased my rent and everybody else in the shopping center left, I bought two acres, developed the plans and built this (current location on Rutherford Street). We moved in on Jan. 3, 1997.”
Over 36 years of continuous operation, Stevenson’s Country Ham House became an institution and daily stop for many Greenvillians looking for a home-cooked meal that nearly always included a personal visit by Stevenson inquiring on his valued customers’ satisfaction.
The many autographed pictures of sports greats, representatives, senators, governors, congressmen, judges, and former presidents, and proclamations that adorn the walls of the Country Ham House, including Stevenson’s own South Carolina Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor accorded by the state, clearly attest to the wide ranging clientele that has enjoyed its experience at the establishment over the years. Also evident are autographed Furman jerseys and pictures of many former Paladins — players, coaches, staff, and administrators — who have never forgotten how much Stevenson and the Country Ham House have meant to them over the years.
“A number of former players have stayed in contact with me, and when they come back to Greenville and Furman this is the first stop for many of them and their families. I’ve always appreciated that.”
Among the favorite stories Stevenson enjoys relaying from his three-plus decades of operation is the visit to the Country Ham House in 2000 by presidential candidate George W. Bush during his first run for the White House.
“George was probably here three hours, which was made possible by David Wilkins. I really enjoyed that. When he got ready to leave, the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) folks dumped a load of manure in front of his bus, and they had to call the City of Greenville to bring over a backhoe to remove it to get his bus out. That hit the newspapers all of the world — the London Times, everywhere.”
While the keep-sake pictures and memorabilia will soon come down, for Stevenson the time is ripe to make new memories with family, specifically his four children and now 13 grandchildren.
Son Tommy, Jr., and his family live in Greenville. Another son, Hunter, resides in Macon, Ga. There are two daughters — Molly, who lives in Birmingham, Ala., and Mary Elizabeth in Chicago, Ill.
“I’m looking forward to spending time with them fishing and playing golf. I’m ready to do some things,” said Stevenson.
The draw of family and the recent COVID pandemic contributed to the decision to shed his apron.
“The last year has been really tough. COVID has taken toll on all restaurants, on all businesses. The way you get up in the morning and dress, to the way you live your life…it has disrupted everything.”
Stevenson can personally attest to the veracity of the virus after contracting it in November and spending five days in the hospital.
“I had COVID and pneumonia, and I’m still on oxygen at night.”
The ordeal with COVID was the latest in a number of physical challenges Stevenson has faced and overcome.
“A few years ago I was fainting a lot and underwent an operation to install a pacemaker. That was on a Thursday because I remember two days later I went to a Furman football game. I know we were leading at halftime, but I had to leave because I was so tired.”
For a man who made rising at 4 a.m. a priority for over three decades to begin food preparation for his loyal customers, the need for a slower pace has been well earned and will no doubt include plenty of helpings of Furman Football at Paladin Stadium.