Capt. Hugh Stephens, of Glen Cove, served as a Merchant Marine in World War II and later taught at SUNY Maritime before retiring at age 97. On Tuesday, a surprise celebration was held at the Glen Cove Senior Center to celebrate his 100th birthday. NewsdayTV’s Macy Egeland reports. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas; Photo Credit: Maryann Zappulla

U.S. Merchant Marine Capt. Hugh Stephens, of Glen Cove, faced countless harrowing missions during World War II, surviving brutal attacks from German U-boats and fierce conditions in the Arctic Ocean while delivering supplies and cargo to Russian allies.

Years later, Stephens would start a new career, teaching an estimated 3,900 cadets over a dozen years at SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx — a job he held till the age of 97 — how to stay safe in dangerous waters.

“What I taught them was based on two accidents that I had. And I wanted to make sure that nobody else had those accidents again,” Stephens recalled Tuesday as he was surrounded by friends, family and former colleagues at the Glen Cove Senior Center during a celebration for his 100th birthday. “ … You go to bed at night and you figure you accomplished something that day.”

Dressed in his merchant mariner uniform, adorned with service medals, Stephens, who lived in Port Washington for 50 years, was feted by lawmakers, senior center officials and former students who honored the centenarian for years of service on land and at sea.

In June, Stephens and his partner, Maryann Zappulla, 71, will head to Paris and Normandy, France, for an all-expenses-paid trip from the Merchant Marine Association for the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

“He really did see a huge amount of action,” Dean Stephens, of New Jersey, said of his father. “And he's lucky to be alive. He had a couple near death experiences in the war. The Merchant Marines were sort of the unsung division. And the things that some of those men and women did were above and beyond.”

Stephens entered the maritime industry in 1943 as a 19-year-old seaman during World War II. By war’s end, he was sailing as third mate aboard an army transport hospital ship.

During his third journey — known as the Murmansk Run, considered among the most dangerous convoy assignments — Stephens and his team braved terrifying weather conditions in the Arctic Ocean, rescued dozens of Norwegian women and children and survived repeated attacks from German submarines, aircraft and warships. 

In total, five ships in Stephens' British convoy did not return home.

“You are a true hero,” Glen Cove Mayor Pam Panzenbeck said. “You are my hero. Not just for the past but for how you live your life today.”

Stephens has also earned accolades from unlikely sources.

In November 2020, Stephens was awarded the Medal of Ushakov by Russian President Vladimir Putin for his “personal courage and valor during World War II while participating in the arctic convoys.”

After spending decades at sea, both in the public and private sector, Stephens turned his attention to teaching the next generation of mariners as a senior lecturer at SUNY Maritime College.

Cadet Katherine Mattikow recalled Stephens serving as her professor during her freshman year in 2019.

“I knew who Capt. Stephens was before he even met me,” said Mattikow, now a graduate student at the college studying international transportation management. “His reputation preceded him. They called him the living legend. This title was not just for being the only 96-year-old professor at the college. It was earned through years of sailing, teaching experience and heroism.”

And it's not just in the classroom where Stephens defies Father Time.

In 2017, Stephens met Zappulla, who is 29 years his junior, at their Manhasset church. Despite the age gap, Zappulla determined Stephens “has still got game” and the two soon moved in together.

“I've waited a lifetime to meet him,” she said. “He's a wonderful person. And I feel very lucky to live with him.”

As for the secret of his good health, Stephens points to some good rules that have served him well for a century.

“No drinking. No smoking,” he said. “Plenty of walking and exercise, and try to do good turns on somebody every day.” 

Correction: Hugh Stephens was awarded the Medal of Ushakov from Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2020. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date.

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