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Local gay rights pioneer leaves lasting legacy

Photo of Dr. Walter A. Sheppe Jr.
Dr. Walter A. Sheppe Jr. (Photo credit: Equality Virginia)

A planned gift from longtime gay rights advocate Dr. Walter A. Sheppe Jr. will preserve the legacy of the former University of Akron professor forever.

Dr. Sheppe, who taught biology at the University of Akron for more than 20 years, died in March 2017 at age 89, leaving more than $13,000 to the Gay Community Endowment Fund of Akron Community Foundation.

The gift, which was one of the largest in the endowment fund's history, was made through a charitable gift annuity Dr. Sheppe established at Akron Community Foundation in 2003. Charitable gift annuities give donors the ability to receive a steady income stream for life while also supporting their favorite charities. In the case of Dr. Sheppe, his one-time gift of $10,000 not only provided him with more than $5,000 in income during his later years, but it also resulted in nearly $17,000 in gifts to charity. In addition to the gift to GCEF, the remaining portion of Dr. Sheppe's annuity supported Akron Community Foundation's Community Fund, which meets emerging needs in Greater Akron.

"Thanks to Dr. Sheppe's foresight and generosity, the Gay Community Endowment Fund will be able to permanently increase our impact on the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community," said GCEF Chair Cindy Christman. "We're grateful for the incredible strides Dr. Sheppe made in advancing the rights of LGBT people throughout Greater Akron, and we're proud to carry on his legacy."

A native of Virginia, Dr. Sheppe served in the U.S. Army for three years after earning a bachelor's degree in biology from The College of William & Mary. In 1958, he graduated with a doctorate in zoology from the University of British Columbia and taught classes at universities across the globe before joining the faculty of the University of Akron in 1968. He served as a professor of biology at the University of Akron for more than 20 years, leveraging his position to advocate for nondiscrimination protections for LGBT students. Dr. Sheppe was instrumental in founding the university's LGBT Union and served as its first advisor. He was also an active member of several local LGBT activist groups, including Akron's Homosexual Unity Group and the Kent Gay Liberation Front at Kent State University.

On the national stage, Dr. Sheppe was among the first pioneers of the gay rights movement, participating in advocacy efforts as early as 1959. He had a particular passion for protecting the rights of LGBT college students, and in the 1970s, he joined the Gay Academic Union to help prevent discrimination in schools throughout the country. As a chapter president of the American Association of University Professors, Dr. Sheppe also developed resolutions to protect gay and lesbian students on campus. In 2014, he was recognized by Equality Virginia as an OUTstanding Virginian, a distinguished honor given to individuals and organizations that take the lead in moving equality forward in the state of Virginia.

Dr. Sheppe's legacy of service and advocacy in the LGBT community will continue long after his lifetime, thanks to his gift to the Gay Community Endowment Fund. The fund, which was established in 2001, is a permanent philanthropic endowment that awards grants to programs that positively impact the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as well as Greater Akron as a whole. Recent grants from the fund have provided shelter for homeless LGBT youth, offered counseling and social support for LGBT senior citizens, and supported young adult productions at Akron Civic Theatre, among other critical initiatives.

To learn more about the Gay Community Endowment Fund and how you can support it – including through charitable gift annuities and other planned gifts – visit

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