Stephen P. Hepler’s legacy: pioneering computer science and perpetual support

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Though only a faculty member for a few years, Stephen P. Hepler, Ph.D. made a significant and lasting impact on the study of computer science at Wayne State University. Hepler died tragically in September 1977, just shy of his 30th birthday, but his legacy as an innovator and educator lives on at Wayne State. 

The Stephen Hepler Endowed Memorial Scholarship was established just after his death and has, to date, provided life-changing financial support to 32 of Wayne State’s best and brightest computer science students. 

“Steve came highly recommended by Ohio State,” recalled Seymour Wolfson, ’59, Ph.D. ’65, former associate chair of computer science at Wayne State. “He had an unbelievable amount of energy, was personable and brimming with great ideas.”

In 1973 Hepler and his wife moved to Detroit, and he became the second Ph.D. in computer science to teach at Wayne State. “It didn’t take me long to realize that he was a super person, someone who was good at everything,” Wolfson said. Hepler became a leader in the department, and it was largely due to his tireless efforts that Wayne State’s computer science faculty added seven more Ph.D.-holding members within a few years.

As a doctoral candidate at Ohio State University Hepler specialized in artificial intelligence and human-computer interactions, an area he continued to study at Wayne State. He analyzed how human beings processed information and used that data to conceptualize computer processing systems and intuitive interfaces. In the late ’60s and early ’70s the information science side of computer science was largely theoretical, and many of Hepler’s ideas were far ahead of their practical applications. 

“Had Steve been able to finish his work, I have no doubt that he’d have become a giant in the field of computer science,” said Wolfson. “He certainly would have been a leader in developing touch screens and smart phones.”

Mary recalled that her late husband’s students loved him, and their superlative course evaluations confirm that assessment. He was posthumously nominated for an excellence in teaching award, an honor that Mary said would have made him exceedingly proud.

She recalled how he went to bat for one student in particular. The student was refused financial aid by a third-party provider, on the grounds that computer science was not a viable career for someone with his disability. Hepler spent hours preparing written testimony on behalf of the student, explaining in detail why cerebral palsy was no impediment to a career in computer technology. The day before Hepler’s death the student learned that his professor’s efforts were successful.

Hepler was as enthusiastic and driven in his leisure pursuits as he was in his career. Wolfson’s favorite memory of Hepler was watching him play table tennis with Nai-Kuan Tsao, another computer science professor, and Tsao’s wife, both accomplished table tennis players in their native China. “It was like attending a world-class tennis match,” Wolfson recalled. “It was incredible watching the ball fly back and forth, and only very rarely was it missed.”

An avid skier and baseball player, Hepler organized softball games between the computer science and other departments at Wayne State. He was a stalwart fan of the Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers, but also loved basketball, the signature sport of his native Indiana.

“Steve was an exceptionally well-rounded person,” Mary said. “He was brilliant and had boundless energy, but he was also a kind-hearted, good man and a true friend.”

Mary enjoys meeting the recipients of the Stephen P. Hepler Endowed Memorial Scholarship, hearing about their plans and learning about how they will use the funds. Some recipients put the scholarship toward tuition, but others have used it to attend conferences, purchase books and equipment, or pay living expenses. “Steve did so much good while he was alive,” Mary said. “And it’s important that his legacy of good works will continue in perpetuity, through the scholarship endowment.”
 

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