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Community was lucky to have Dr. Atlee Kepler

May 04, 2010

Dr. Atlee Kepler certainly left his mark on our little corner of the world.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Kepler, who died April 28 at the age of 88, was one of a handful of local leaders responsible for the early development and later success of Hagerstown Junior College, now Hagerstown Community College. He was the chief officer of the college, initially as dean and then as president, from January 1953 to the summer of 1986.

Long on vision and determination, Kepler's life's passion was HJC. For more than 30 years, he worked to establish and build a dynamic two-year college in Washington County. And he succeeded, perhaps beyond even his dreams.

During his tenure, the college's enrollment grew from about 150 students to about 6,000 credit and noncredit students when he retired. When HJC opened in 1946, it shared space with high school students at the old Hagerstown High School on North Potomac Street. When Kepler retired, HJC was housed on a 100-plus acre campus on Robinwood Drive east of town.

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Today, HCC sits on 320 acres, serves about 16,000 students taking credit and noncredit courses, and offers 100 academic programs. The campus is the envy of many community college administrators.

Kepler, a Middletown, Md., native, arrived in Hagerstown in the mid-1940s and took a job as an English teacher at the old South Potomac Junior High School. We've been told that he was tapped for the head job at HJC by another local education visionary and innovator, the late Dr. William Brish, a longtime Washington County schools superintendent.

According to news reports, Kepler believed that returning World War II veterans needed access to higher education. At the time, many veterans could not take advantage of the GI Bill because there weren't enough spaces in college and university classes to admit them all.

Kepler, himself a WWII veteran, wanted to change that, as well as provide affordable access to higher education for all county citizens who wanted to continue their education. The creation of a two-year college here was not a popular idea when it was first hatched. But throughout his tenure, he doggedly and relentlessly pushed the community to increase its commitment to HJC, recognizing that over time, higher education's value to our citizenry would become more and more important.

When Kepler felt HJC was ready for its own building, he used his persistence, energy and political savvy to get it. In what was reported at the time to be a controversial 3-2 vote, the commissioners agreed to house HJC in a new four-classroom building on the South Hagerstown High School campus. Kepler said in an interview several years ago that the candidate he helped to get elected to the commissioners - for this express purpose - was the one who cast the deciding vote in favor of the new HJC building.

True to Kepler's vision, HCC, then as now, provides a quality, low-cost education for students who might not be able to either afford tuition, living expenses or commuting costs at other colleges.

As an individual, Kepler was a gracious, kind gentleman. He was active in the community, serving on numerous nonprofit and public service boards, including the Kiwanis, hospital and library boards, and the Chamber of Commerce. He remained an active supporter of HCC in retirement. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Annabelle Sunderland Kepler.

In short, Atlee was a great visionary, educator and leader, as well as a class act.

Our community was lucky to have him.

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