Stephen Millard Craven, a loving and devoted father, papa bear, friend, businessman, coach, mentor, former all-star athlete, passionate follower of Jesus Christ, and pillar of the community, went home to be with the Lord on Jan. 19, 2022. He was 64.
Known by most as Steve, Stephen was one of four children born to James and Kay Craven in Pinebluff, N.C. His upbringing included trips to Aberdeen and Pinebluff lakes, where he developed a love for the water, and rides in Mr. Roland Delano’s car, which sometimes was so packed with children that some had to ride in the trunk.
Steve attended grade school in Aberdeen under the tutelage of Capt. Donald Cunningham, who taught him survival skills that weren’t part of the classroom curriculum. It’s no wonder that he and the captain’s son, J. Cunningham, became fast friends and hiking buddies. When they were 10 and on the cusp of starting the fourth grade, the two boys hiked 50 miles with Boy Scout Troop 206. And Steve, despite being picked on because he was so young, getting hurt and contending with the heat and occasional rain, completed that rigorous journey at his best friend’s side. Perhaps that’s where his renowned tenacity and leadership skills were born. No matter how they developed, they became part of his character for the rest of his life — even when the odds seemed stacked against him.
Such was the case when he was a student at Aberdeen Middle School, joining the football team under Coach Nat Carter to follow in the footsteps of his brother, Richard. He was too small to make much of an impact on the field, but he possessed the heart of a lion. Over time, he honed his skills to such a degree that he began taking down faster, larger opponents. He joined Pinecrest High School’s football team as a freshman, but this time, his diminutive size was more of a hindrance than a help. His mother devised a solution. One day, she dropped him off at the home of Bobby Pugh, who opened his garage to children who wanted to get stronger, free of charge. Within a year of training at Mr. Pugh’s — along with working at his father’s galvanizing plant, where he dragged heavy angle iron and drank the ‘protein of the sea’ (the most disgusting thing he’s ever tasted, he said) — Steve transformed from a 5-foot-7-inches sophomore who weighed 140 pounds to a 6-foot-3-inches junior who weighed 200 pounds. He even had a full beard to round out his new look! Around this time, he formed a lifelong friendship with teammate, Mitchell Ray, and became a student of Coach John Williams, a Christian warrior whose commitment to service would inspire Steve’s own.
His senior year, Steve was elected football team captain, having become one of the strongest players in the school’s history and inheriting the nickname Polar Bear (Nanuk) because of his strength and size. As captain, he leaned on the teachings of his mentors, mirroring their faith, accountability, and kindness. He also drew from another pivotal leadership experience a few years earlier when he was elected class president and helped guide his schoolmates during the 1971 riots.
After high school, Steve went on to play defensive end at Chowan University in Murfreesboro, N.C. before transferring to the University of South Carolina. There, he played fullback behind Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers. He later transferred to East Carolina University, where he experienced a career-ending knee injury and underwent an experimental surgical procedure that reduced his mobility. Despite these setbacks, Steve’s faith never wavered, and he earned his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at East Carolina in 1980.
While in Greenville, Steve would embark on his most important job yet when he met Michelle, the woman who would become the mother of his children. As a father, he kept his family close while also pouring into the lives of anyone who needed a father’s love, direction, and discipline. He soon started on a new career path as a hearing instrument specialist – a role he held for more than 35 years. In 1991, he opened The Hearing Aid Center which later became Craven Better Hearing and came to cherish every moment he spent with his customers. But he also made time for family, taking his daughters with him on house calls all over the state. As a businessman, he was compassionate and generous. It wasn’t uncommon for him to service customers without receiving compensation; he was banking his reward in heaven, he’d say. His love and faith in Jesus supplied him with everything he needed, and he gladly shared the word of God with his customers. His clients became like family, seeking him for hearing aids, but also for prayer, comfort, and counsel. It wasn’t just his customers who benefitted from Steve’s generosity. He spent years training young athletes, instilling in them lessons many have carried with them throughout their lives–even as they’ve become parents themselves.
He adored his daughters and drove countless miles to support them at games, volunteer at church services, or create lasting memories on scuba-diving trips in the Florida Keys with his “A-Team.” He also loved animals, so it was never unusual to spot him accompanied by a dog or two during workouts, office appointments, or just riding around town.
Steve was a tried-and-true apostle of Jesus Christ. He enjoyed Bible study, spent time strengthening his relationship with Christ, and developed an authentic concern and love for the downtrodden or lonely. He moved people’s furniture, raked their yards, or just made himself available to listen. He was a safe space and trusted confidant for dozens, although he often referred to himself as “Mr. Nobody.” But he was somebody to a lot of people. He was a comforter who offered a place in his circle, and his circle was light.
Take a trip to the Craven family home on West Craven Avenue, and you’ll find on the property a small metal building with no heating or cooling and barely any standing room. It’s dubbed the “Muscleodeum,” and inside its walls are covered with an array of Bible verses and inspirational quotes from Teddy Roosevelt, Vince Lombardi, Martin Luther King Jr., and several others. One particular photo shows a young boy with one arm and no legs swinging a bat at a ball. Its caption reads: “WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE?” It’s here that Steve trained generations of athletes who, although missing him today, embody his legacy with the lives they lead.
By now, it’s probably evident that Steve made a difference in every life he touched. His word was his bond. His faith was steadfast. His guidance was infinite. We feel the impact of his loss greatly, but we are comforted knowing that he’s at rest with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Rest in Peace, Big Man. You earned it.
A memorial service will be held on February 19, 2022, at 12:00 pm at Ives Memorial Baptist Church. The family will receive friends one hour prior to the service at the church. Following the service at the church, a reception will be held at Aberdeen Lake.
The Celebration of Life will be streamed and recorded on imbcworship.org.
West Pine Animal Hospital
5687 NC-211, West End NC 27376