Robert O. Shephard's Career as a Civil Engineer

March 2012 By

Robert Owen Shephard graduated with a civil engineering degree from the University of Mississippi in 1935 and had an exemplary career until his retirement in 1972. Last year marked Shephard's 100th birthday. His daughter, Camille S. Yahm, and son, Robert O. Shepard Jr., donated a scholarship fund to the Department of Civil Engineering in memory of their father. Following is the story of Shephard as told by Yahm.

My father, Robert Owen "IKey" Shephard, graduated from Meridian High School in May 1931 and enrolled in the University of Mississippi Department of Civil Engineering in the fall. There he set out on an exemplary career in academics, classroom leadership and athletics. An accomplished athlete, he lettered in track, football and golf; set a record in 1933 for javelin; and was a member of the mile relay team that set records in 1932 and 1934 that were not broken for many years. He was active in Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and served on the senior cabinet of the YMCA. Over that four-year period, he served as vice president of the senior class of the School of Engineering, president of the junior class and president of the Engineering Club. He distinguished himself by being one of only three classmates who graduated with a degree in engineering in 1935.

Upon graduation he was immediately employed by the State Highway Office in Jackson, where he began the first survey of the Natchez Trace from Port Gibson to Raymond. A little-known and surprising fact evolved from his work with the newly formed Soil Conservation Service. Mississippi suffered from serious erosion problems, and in doing the research to correct it, he discovered that the Japanese had a plant that would help hold soil together. Weekly, he took our family to the experimental station to see how the seedlings were growing. The plant's name is kudzu!

After a two-year stint working as the sanitary engineer with the Meridian City Water Department and helping build the city reservoir, he accepted the position of chief of engineering party for the J. Anderson Co. in July 1941. Then came WWII, and in 1943 he enlisted in the U.S. Army Engineering Corps. He received his officer's training at Camp McCain in North Mississippi, where he was also employed by the War Department. His engineering expertise became a vital part of the water purification program. The program was so successful that it was adopted at other military installations both during and after the war.

While serving as assistant medical inspector in the Surgeon's Division in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1945, he was again rewarded for his expertise and promoted from first lieutenant to captain. He received his honorable discharge in 1947 and smoothly entered civilian life as county engineer on road projects in Alabama and with the Mississippi Highway Department.

In 1950, he joined the Soil Conservation Service in Grenada and embarked on the crowning achievement of his career-and one of which he was justifiably proud-the construction of the Grenada Dam, at the time the largest man-made earth dam in the world. One unforgettable sunny afternoon before the dam was completed, he took my brother and me on the road that ran beneath the soon-to-be spillway and told us that one day we could say that we had ridden on the bottom of the dam!

The final phase of his career began in 1955, when he was hired as street and drainage engineer for the Federal Housing Administration in Atlanta, Ga., and remained there until his retirement in 1972.