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A Promise Kept

Photo courtesy Brian Cohen

Frank J. “Mike” Hepler ’73 knows how easy it is to get on the wrong track in life. Growing up on the tough streets of McKees Rocks, Pa., Hepler, the son of a single mother, fell in with the wrong crowd and even got involved with gangs.

One day on a whim, he decided to sneak into the local Boys Club and steal a bottle of pop. “I wasn’t inside for five minutes,” he says, “and then, all of a sudden, I feel these big hands on my shoulders.” Turns out they were the hands of Ed Ferris Sr., then the executive director of the club. But instead of kicking him out or turning him into the police, Ferris invited Hepler to start coming to the club on a regular basis. “The club saved my life,” he says. “Ed saved my life, just like he did for thousands of others over the years.”

Today Hepler is the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, a position he’s held for the past 23 years; he’s been on staff for over 42 years.

Boys & Girls Clubs of America has been around for more than 100 years. Officially organized in 1906, the organization provides troubled and disadvantaged youth with programs and services that promote and enhance development. Hepler oversees nine of the club’s facilities in Allegheny County and five outreach centers in Indiana County. He also provides oversight for the Youth Enterprise Zone, a for-profit retail store and café that provides job and entrepreneurial education and opportunities for teenage members of the club; and the Career Connections Charter High School, a partnership between his organization and the City of Pittsburgh School District.

It’s a challenging job with a ton of responsibility. “You work 24/7, and you always have to be accessible,” says Hepler, who is responsible for over 7000 children in western PA. He has to be good at keeping the books, too; the club alone has a budget of $3.9 million.

The charter school has approximately 240 students in grades 9-12 and is thriving, thanks to a mission that closely resembles that of Robert Morris. “We offer small class sizes, a strong teacher-student-parent component, and a careers-based curriculum,” says Hepler. They also have an award-winning mentoring program, an internship program, and plenty of other extracurricular activities to keep the kids involved and on the right path.

Hepler and his staff have certainly faced their share of challenges over the years. In the 1990s, the local drug culture was a major problem outside one of their facilities, and kids were walking into the building holding hypodermic needles they’d found on the street. Hepler, who once served as a state constable in Ohio, decided to do something about it. “Our organization has always maintained a commitment to provide the young people with a safe environment,” he says. In response, arsonists burnt down the school and caused $700,000 in damages to the building. Hepler even received death threats along the way. “We paid a price for our efforts,” he says. “But at the end of the day, we made a real difference in the community.” For his efforts in taking a stand against drug activity in the neighborhood, Hepler was awarded the National FBI Community Leadership Award.

This past March, Hepler received the Gen. Matthew Ridgway Award at the annual West Point Founders Day dinner. Named for Gen. Matthew Bunker Ridgway (1895–1993), the award was established to honor non-graduates of West Point who have “demonstrated hands-on involvement in positive youth development in Western Pennsylvania.” Hepler is only the fourth recipient of this award since the West Point Society of Western Pennsylvania was formed in 1955.

Prior to attending Robert Morris, in 1966, Hepler enlisted in the Army, just as there was an increase in U.S. combat units being deployed for the war in Vietnam. He spent most of his time in the field as a scout in the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, a.k.a., the “Blackhawks.”  “Among other responsibilities, it was my job to keep the troop commander out of harm’s way,” he says. “I saw the real deal in the war; the worst that the world had to offer.”

On January 2, 1968, during the Tet Offensive, he got hit in the neck by machine-gun fire and ended up in a coma in a field hospital. When he finally came out of it, he promised himself that he’d dedicate his life to helping young people the same way that Ed Ferris helped him.

Hepler ended up receiving a number of commendations for his service, including a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and a Purple Heart.  He was also inducted into Soldiers & Sailors Hall of Valor. He was released from the Army on Sept. 8, 1969, and started at Robert Morris the very next day, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill for veterans. “I considered it a wonderful education,” he says. “You couldn’t just slide by on your electives; there was no basket weaving.” He says what it did more than anything was teach him how to think. “It taught me how to evaluate things and position myself in the proper manner for future responsibilities in the business world.”

At the time, Hepler was working 60 hours a week for the Boys & Girls Club in Pittsburgh, so he appreciated Robert Morris’s convenient downtown location. Since his goal was to pursue a career with the club, he majored business administration. “It was a perfect fit,” he says. “The convenience, the education, and one hell of a placement department—that was a real drawing card.”

Hepler says Robert Morris really caters to veterans. “They understand the challenges you face. Like for me, they knew I was working and going to school full-time, and they did what they could to accommodate me.”

Today, Hepler even has some Robert Morris graduates on his staff, like Jay Kline ’94, assistant executive director for the Club’s Sto-Ken-Rox Branch; Cynthia (Gerber) Wilson ’77, director of administrative services; and Paul D. Pish ’79, executive director of the Lawrenceville Branch.  “We’ve had quite a few alums here,” he says. “They have a work ethic that is very solid. Whenever you’re hiring, you take a hard look at Robert Morris candidates because you know they’ve been really prepared to enter the workforce.”

Besides the work he does to help the young men and women of Pittsburgh, Hepler’s other passions are motocross and martial arts. “There’s two things that you need in life,” he says. “Having a mentor – someone you can depend on like Ed Ferris to help you navigate through life – and having a hobby.”

Hepler first got into motocross back in the ’70s. “I’m a jumper,” he says. “I love to jump. I did an 80-foot jump five years ago.” But after 22 broken bones – half from motocross, half from martial arts – his doctor told him “No more dirt bikes.”

He is also a state champion martial arts master and a member of the International Black Belt Hall of Fame. “It keeps you young,” he says, adding that his hands have always been”super-fast.” “Growing up in the Rocks, I had to be fast in order to get the food off the table.” Hepler now shares this passion with the kids he works with through the club’s Seven Dragons Martial Arts Tae Kwon Do school. “So I’m on four wheels now,” he says. “I have an ATV and I try to ride every chance I get.”

At 63 years of age, Hepler says he has no plans of retiring; he loves what he does too much.

“I still don’t think of myself as an old timer,” he says. “I’ve always believed that when you look into the eyes of a child, you get a magical glimpse of the future of our world. It is extremely satisfying to play a small role in preparing them for the future.”

Written by Valentine J. Brkich

For more information on the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania and how you can get involved, visit bgcwpa.org.

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