Obituary: David E. Epperson / Longtime dean at University of Pittsburgh social work school

March 14, 1935 - June 20, 2011

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David Epperson, a lifelong social reformer whose 29-year stewardship built the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work into a nationally recognized program, died Monday of an apparent heart attack while attending a meeting of the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh at the Duquesne Club. He was rushed to UPMC Mercy but could not be revived, said his daughter, Sharon Epperson. He was 76.

The son of a steelworker from Donora, Mr. Epperson lived out his commitment to education, racial equality, social and civic improvement through decades of leadership at the university, the Urban League, the YMCA and a host of boards and committees.

"Dave was a great public servant who contributed a huge amount to this community in multiple ways," said Mo Coleman, director emeritus of Pitt's Institute of Politics and a longtime colleague. "There was hardly any area of life in the city that he didn't improve."

Eric Mann, president of the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, noted Mr. Epperson's work on such YMCA programs as Youth in Government, which teaches high schoolers about civic engagement, gang intervention in Homewood and men's housing issues Downtown. Mr. Mann called him "an iconic figure as well as a friend and mentor to so many of us. He is going to be missed."

When he retired in 2001, Mr. Epperson was the longest-serving dean in Pitt history, its only African-American dean and the longest-serving dean of social work in the country.

During his tenure, the school's Child Welfare for Education Leadership program expanded its budget from $6 million to $21 million, making it the second-largest statewide social work program in the country. By the time he left office, 10 of 140 deans of schools of social work nationwide were from Pitt -- eight were graduates, and two had been senior faculty there.

Mr. Epperson also started the school's mental health center, then one of seven nationwide, and a master's degree program at the Johnstown campus. In addition, he oversaw the Catalyst for Community Building project to support economic development in distressed city neighborhoods.

As chairman of the Urban League of Pittsburgh, Mr. Epperson built bridges between the city's black and white people, working on equal opportunity in employment, housing and education. Leon Haley, former league president, called Mr. Epperson "a warm, caring and diplomatic person who could talk across racial boundaries in a rational, calm way. That allowed him to build partnerships with many groups, corporations and foundations."

As a leader at every level of the YMCA, Mr. Epperson chaired the local chapter, the national organization with its 2,000 chapters, and, for 20 years, the international committee of the YMCA of the USA, with 15 years chairing its Office for Africa.

He also traveled widely, attending educational missions in Africa, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Middle East, often setting up collaborative programs for Pitt.

"His impact was phenomenal," said Julius Jones, former president of the Pittsburgh Y, who worked with Mr. Epperson on exchange programs with YMCAs in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. "He brought to any conversation wisdom, tremendous knowledge and a vision of what might be done to solve problems."

Mr. Epperson was one of two sons born to Robert N. Epperson Sr., who worked at U.S. Steel's Donora Works, and Bessie Tibbs Epperson, a homemaker. His brother, Robert Jr., and a half-sister, Mamie Epperson, predeceased him.

He attended Donora High School and went briefly to Pitt, but left to join the Air Force, where he became a staff sergeant with the Strategic Air Command.

Returning home, he enrolled again at Pitt and proceeded to earn four degrees there: a bachelor's in political science in 1961, a master's of social work in 1964, a master's in international relations in 1970 and a Ph.D. in public policy in 1975.

He also spent a year at Chinese University in Hong Kong on a YMCA World Service Worker Fellowship in community development.

His early career included stints at Pressley House, Kingsley House, ACTION-Housing Inc. and Pitt's Equal Opportunity Program.

From 1967 to 1969, he designed and ran the city's poverty program, then known as the Mayor's Committee on Human Resources. Sargent Shriver, who ran the national program, considered Mr. Epperson's "the best in the nation," Mr. Coleman said.

In 1964, he married Cecelia Marie Trower, and the couple raised two daughters at their home in Point Breeze. Both sisters went to Harvard. Sharon Epperson, a correspondent for CNBC in New York, is married to journalist Christopher Farley; Lia Epperson Jealous, an associate professor at American University Washington College of Law, is married to NAACP president Benjamin Jealous.

"My father always taught my sister and me to be strong girls and now women," Sharon Epperson said. "He taught us to always make sure we had 'mad money' to take care of ourselves in any situation, and I still follow that.

"Because of his wealth of professional and life experience, I called him for advice all the time, and he always had a three-step plan."

Mr. Epperson also served on boards and committees of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh Foundation and PNC Bank's Urban Advisory Board, as well as the Negro Educational Emergency Drive.

In addition to his wife and two daughters, he is survived by three grandchildren.

Visitation will be Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. in East Liberty Presbyterian Church, 116 S. Highland Ave., where a funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday in the church.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to the David E. and Cecelia T. Epperson Scholarship Fund (for students at the Pitt School of Social Work), University of Pittsburgh Office of Institutional Advancement, 128 N. Craig St., Pittsburgh 15260.

Sally Kalson: or 412-263-1610.


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