In Commemoration of Steve Sheppard

Williams faculty and staff colleagues,

I write with the promised commemoration of our colleague, Steve Sheppard, Class of 2012 Professor of Economics, who passed away on March 2, 2024, at the age of 69.

Steve joined the Williams faculty in 2000, after starting his career in faculty positions at Virginia Tech and Oberlin College. I recommend reading the lovely tribute by Hannah Marx ’26 in the Williams Record for details about his early life and education, among other details.

Fairleigh S. Dickinson, Jr. ’41 Professor of Economics, Emeritus, Peter Montiel’s relationship with Steve dates back to their shared time at Oberlin. Peter says, “I will always be grateful to him for welcoming me back to liberal arts academia, and for making me feel at home after a decade in the policy world. He had a broad and intense intellectual curiosity that made him an ideal fit for the liberal arts environment and a special colleague. It was clear to me then, and remained clear ever after, that he loved the academic life and especially economics.”

Once here, he quickly became a wise, curious and kind presence in the department. Dean of Faculty and Kimberly A. ’96 and Robert R. ’62 Henry Professor of Economics Lara Shore-Sheppard recalls, “Steve and I arrived at Williams the same year, he as a full professor and me starting out on the tenure track. The coincidence of our arrival was a source of confusion to many, who thought we must be related! Though not related, from the moment we arrived Steve served as a mentor, sharing course materials, ideas and research advice, not to mention wisdom and comradery. He was always around the department, happy to answer my questions or just to chat—about economics, about our families, or about anything at all.”

Over almost a quarter century, Steve held the titles, successively, of Professor of Economics, James Phinney Baxter III Professor of Public Affairs, Robert F. Wright Class of 1952 Professor of Economics and, finally, Class of 2012 Professor, his title at the time of his death. Over the years he also taught at Webster (MO) University, the London School of Economics, the University of Reading (UK) and his graduate alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis.

As a scholar, Steve was renowned for his work on housing markets, land use regulations, urban economics, local public finance, environmental economics and the economics of arts and culture. His technical facility was a complement to his analytical skills. As David A. Wells Professor of Political Economy, Emeritus, Ralph Bradburd, recalls, “In the early 2000s we were considering how to model behavior in markets where there was no single price at a given moment (e.g., housing or labor markets). We bounced ideas back and forth, and largely thanks to Steve we came up with the idea of using agent-based, computerized models. He then figured out a way to cobble together half a dozen computers to build a system powerful enough to run our simulations. Whether it was his research on housing markets, or on the economic implications of the arts and cultural activities, or proudly riding an e-bike around town long before most people had even heard of them, Steve was playful, witty, and innovative.”

The courses Steve taught ranged from “Price and Allocation Theory” to “Gentrification and Neighborhood Change.” But he was perhaps best known for co-teaching “Acquiring Art: Selecting and Purchasing Art for WCMA,” with Kevin Murphy, Eugenie Prendergast Senior Curator of American and European Art at the Williams College Museum of Art. Steve and Kevin taught their students about art and the art market and then gave them opportunities to propose acquisitions for the WCMA collection, supported by the Fulkerson Fund for Leadership in the Arts. Steve and Kevin were working on a book manuscript based on their teaching, and I very much hope it can be published sometime in the future.

“Steve’s rigorous and creative approach to piercing the opacities of the art market was astonishing,” Kevin recounts. “The generosity with which he shared his insights, over the many years we taught together, made me a better teacher and collaborator, and helped our students immeasurably. The nineteen works of art they purchased for the WCMA collection are an important, lasting part of his legacy.”

His insights into the economics of art ranged from the market level down to the features of individual artworks, as William Brough Professor of Economics, Emeritus, Roger Bolton recalls. “I first met Steve in the 1980s, when I was department chair,” Roger writes. “He impressed me as a graduate student on the job market. So I was delighted when he joined us years later, just as I was retiring. I remember fondly his seminar presentations—especially an econometric analysis of image complexity’s effect on a painting’s market value.”

William Brough Professor of Economics Peter Pedroni writes, “I fondly remember working with Steve on projects ranging from the economics of art to real estate markets to the economics of wine reviews. He took such joy in the idea of poking holes in whatever the leading narrative of the day happened to be: Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not so much that local growth encourages art centers, but that art centers serve to encourage local growth. The housing market did not so much crash the U.S. economy during the Great Recession as the other way around. Even the purported oversized impact of expert reviewers on the wine market appeared to be a mirage which disappeared upon more careful analysis. For Steve, the idea was not necessarily to change the way the world thought about these topics, but to modestly offer evidence for a different perspective and have some fun in the process.”

Steve also served our community in many ways. He and his wife, sociologist Kay Oehler, co-founded The Center for Creative Community Development (C3D), a research center for studying how the arts and culture fostered economic development and revitalization in communities, including in the Berkshires. The couple authored many papers with involvement from Williams students. Kay recalls that Steve was especially proud of their Ford Foundation-funded study of the social and economic impact of cultural organizations. The project helped a variety of community-based organizations demonstrate their value to local and state leaders in empirical terms. Beneficiaries included Nuestra Raíces, a grassroots urban agriculture organization based in Holyoke, MA; Efforts of Grace, Inc. (now Ashé Cultural Arts Center), which played a central role in New Orleans’ recovery after Hurricane Katrina; and the Heidelberg Project, Detroit artist Tyree Guyton’s unique combination of living artwork, arts education program and community development initiative.

Here in Williamstown, meanwhile, Steve was a member of the town’s ad hoc committee on strategies for economic growth in 2015 and a member and chair of the town’s Finance Committee. An “avid leisure cyclist,” he was often seen riding one of his many bicycles around town. In 2017, he cycled from Key West up the Florida coast to the Georgia border, exploring byways and meeting new people along the way.

Steve is survived by his wife Kay Oehler; son Zack (Valerie Pinkerton); daughter Rachel (Matthew Yeaton); brother Michael (Joyce); and sisters Julie and Eva Baker (Jeffrey). The family invites his friends and colleagues to join them for a memorial gathering and service at the Williams Inn on Saturday, April 27, from 10:30 a.m. to 2:00 pm, with light refreshments. A private family interment will follow.

In lieu of flowers, the Sheppards welcome contributions to a newly-established Stephen Sheppard First Generation Scholarship at Mount Greylock Regional School. This scholarship will be awarded by the school to Mount Greylock seniors who are accepted to a college or university and would be in the first generation of their family to pursue post-secondary education. Both Steve and Kay were themselves first-generation college students.

I will close with this touching reminiscence from Steve’s daughter, Rachel. “My dad was incredibly open and welcoming in all walks of life,” she says. “He was the opposite of a gatekeeper, an excellent steward for his field who believed in the power of curiosity and community in the pursuit for knowledge. He would often say, ‘You’re not born knowing this stuff,’ and that ‘Wisdom is in knowing who to ask.’”

We are left with the question of whom to ask, now that Steve Sheppard is gone. Our thoughts are with his loved ones, friends, colleagues and former students in this time of loss.