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First president of Hagerstown Junior College dies at 88

Atlee Kepler remembered as founder of school

April 29, 2010|By DAVE McMILLION

HAGERSTOWN -- Atlee C. Kepler, the first president of Hagerstown Junior College, died Wednesday afternoon at Fahrney-Keedy Home and Village in Boonsboro.

Kepler, who pushed for the establishment of the school's current campus on Robinwood Drive in 1966, would have been 89 years old Monday.

Kepler fought for the future of the school when higher education in Washington County was not popular, and several people on Wednesday told the story of a county commission vote that allowed property to be bought for the school.

The vote resulted in a tie, and Evan Crossley, the county commission's chairman, cast the tiebreaking vote in favor of buying the land, said Vaughn Crowl, a longtime psychology professor at the school who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the institution's founding.

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"It really came down to a political dogfight," Crowl said Wednesday night.

Kepler was a counselor at North Hagerstown High School on Potomac Avenue when he was asked to be dean of Hagerstown Junior College, Crowl said.

Kepler was dean of the school from 1953 to 1961, when he became president, a role in which he served until 1986.

Norman P. Shea, the school's president after Kepler, said there was a dean before Kepler, but only for a short time.

"For all intents and purposes, Atlee was the founder (of the school)," Shea said Wednesday by telephone from his home in Florida.

In the early days of the school, there were only a few programs, current HCC president Guy Altieri said.

Today, Hagerstown Community College has more than 100 academic programs and about 16,000 students taking credit and noncredit courses.

The campus sits on 320 acres, has a budget of about $33 million and has more than 600 part-time and full-time employees, Altieri said.

Altieri said he often visited Kepler to talk with him, and he last met with Kepler a couple of weeks ago. Kepler was starting to get weak then, Altieri said.

"But he still wanted to talk enthusiastically about the college and it's spectacular growth. He has left us, but his undying spirit remains," Altieri said.

Hagerstown Community College was founded in 1946 to help veterans returning from World War II update their education and enter the job market. When Kepler took over, the school's future was in doubt, according to a story published in The Herald-Mail in 2000.

The school had served its purpose and although there was no overwhelming community support for a community college, Kepler pushed forward.

"It's hard for people to understand the visionaries we had in Washington County," Altieri said.

Hagerstown Community College was among the first 100 schools of its kind in the country and the first in Maryland, Altieri said.

There is an oft-told story about how Washington County and Montgomery County, Md., were striving to offer the first community college in Maryland, friends of Kepler said Wednesday.

Montgomery County was the first county in the state to apply for a charter to establish a community college but Washington County held the first class, Crowl said.

Establishing a college in an agricultural-based community that gave local students the chance to leave the area in pursuit of new careers was not popular, Altieri and Mike Parsons, a former administrator at the school, said Wednesday.

"He was just ahead of his time," Crowl said.

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