Epperson remembered for involvement in education

By Gwenn Barney

David Epperson bolstered Pitt’s School of Social Work to a place of national prominence during… David Epperson bolstered Pitt’s School of Social Work to a place of national prominence during his time as dean, and he did it with a smile that could brighten any room, said those who knew him best.

The 76-year-old dean emeritus passed away Monday, June 20, leaving behind a life-long legacy of commitment to improving social conditions not only at the University and in Pittsburgh, but also around the world.

“Three things were key to my father,” Epperson’s oldest daughter, Sharon, said. “Faith, family and providing a foundation for education.”

The son of Donora, Pa., steelworker Robert Epperson and homemaker Bessie Tibbs Epperson, David once humbly described himself in an interview with the International Child and Youth Care Network as “just a country social worker.”

“My father did not grow up with any money,” Sharon said. “But he was richer than Bill Gates because he had a family that loved him and supported him.”

That love and support inspired Epperson to an academic career that would go far beyond his father’s third-grade education. He earned four degrees from Pitt between 1961 and 1975 — a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1961, a master’s degree in social work in 1964, a master’s in political science and international affairs in 1970 and, in 1975, a Ph.D. in political science and public policy.

Epperson served as dean of the School of Social Work for 29 years. At the time of his retirement in 2001, he was the longest-serving dean at Pitt and the longest-serving dean of any American school of social work.

During Epperson’s tenure as dean, enrollment for the school more than tripled and its ranking rose to the top 10 percent of accredited graduate social work programs in the country. These achievements led Pitt to name Epperson as the first endowed chair in the School of Social Work.

He also worked to expand and strengthen the services offered by the school. He chartered the nationally esteemed School of Social Work’s Mental Health Center — one of only seven in the country at the time — and launched a master’s degree program at Pitt’s Johnstown campus.

The school of social work also grew noticeably more diverse during his deanship.

Epperson’s deep Pitt roots followed him from the classroom and dean’s office to the bleachers of Pitt’s football stadiums, where he was an avid Panthers fan.

“He was certainly not a quiet person,” Sharon said. “When the team was doing well or poorly, he let everyone know what he thought about it.”

Epperson’s hearty personality endeared him to many. Current School of Social Work Dean Larry Davis remembers Epperson’s radiant greeting especially.

“He would walk up to you and say ‘Let me shake the hand that shakes the world,’” Davis said. “His greeting was always so warm.”

Lucy Spruill also encountered Epperson’s warmth over 30 years ago. As a child, Spruill was a patient at a children’s therapy center in Pittsburgh where Epperson was conducting field work as a graduate student. She had a condition that forced her to walk down stairs with crutches.

“I was scared to death to go up and down steps,” Spruill said. “So they brought in a grad student to stand at the bottom of the steps and encourage me. He would stand at the bottom and say ‘You’ll be alright.’ His encouragement was very helpful.”

Throughout his lifetime, Epperson focused a lot of his attention on affecting positive change not only on Pitt’s campus, but on larger stages as well. Many of these efforts were concentrated in his work with local and national organizations, including the YMCA, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and the NAACP. In 2000, Epperson was awarded the YMCA of Pittsburgh’s Lifelong Achievement Award.

Davis believes Epperson’s greatest contribution to the University was the connection he made between the School of Social Work and the larger Pittsburgh community.

“He enhanced the school’s contact with the community,” Davis said. “His work with the Urban League of Pittsburgh and the Y gave the school a wonderful opportunity for community involvement.”

Epperson was especially unique in the field of social work for his determination to bring about positive social change on the global level.

“He had this idea that we need to think and act globally. He was ahead of his time in that regard,” said Tracy Soska, the continuing education director in the School of Social Work.

To this end, Epperson served as chairman of the YMCA’s International Office on Africa for 12 years, traveling often to several African nations and overseeing development projects.

“He enjoyed bringing the world to Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh to the world,” Sharon said. “I think he saw himself as a bridge-maker.”

In his role as dean, Epperson often took students under his wing as a mentor. What Soska particularly found notable was the former dean’s approachability.

“For many of us, he was sort of like a father figure,” Soska said. “He pushed us and provided us with opportunities.”

Mo Coleman, director emeritus of Pitt’s Institute of Politics, believes the presence of students who interacted with Epperson 30 or 40 years ago at the late dean’s funeral Saturday is a testimony to the impact he had on their lives.

“He loved talking to students and working with them,” Coleman said.

Epperson is survived by his wife, Cecilia Trower Epperson, two daughters — Sharon Emily Epperson (Farley), and Lia Beth Epperson — and three grandchildren, Dylan, 9; Emma, 6, and Morgan, 5.