40 Years and 10 Questions with Dean of Students Larry Stephan

Dean of Students Larry Stephan retires after 40 years at Embry-Riddle's Prescott campus

Dean Larry Stephan has been a mainstay of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott campus from its earliest days as a western flight school over 40 years ago. Since his arrival in 1979 to his last day in June 2019, Dean Stephan has left an indelible mark on campus that led him to multiple departments before becoming Dean of Students 10 years ago in 2009. In that time, the impact Dean Stephan has had on countless young men and women who came to ERAU as fledgling Eagles before spreading their wings and soaring into their futures upon graduation cannot be overstated.

Now Dean Stephan and his wife Brenda look to their own futures as they approach their retirement. We caught up with Dean Stephan to get his take on what his time at Embry-Riddle’s Prescott campus has been like, to learn what some of his favorite memories from 40 years of experience are, and hear what he’ll miss the most about being an Eagle.

Q: What was your arrival at ERAU like 40 years ago?

LARRY STEPHAN (LS): I had just returned from teaching high school in Cobram, Victoria, Australia in May of 1978. I accepted a teaching position in my hometown of Piqua, Ohio starting September of ’78, and was nearing the end of my first year. The Board of Education allowed me to resign to pursue the opportunity in Prescott, AZ.

I arrived on campus Sunday, April 1, 1979. I umpired an intramural softball championship game on Sunday and started in the office on Monday as my original position as the Director of Recreational Sports.

Q: What was campus like 40 years ago? What were your first impressions?

LS: I really liked the location. Prescott was described as, “similar to Boulder, CO,” where I had gone to graduate school with Dr. Gary Upton—who offered me the job. While the campus was pretty barren then (it looked like a ranch of summer camp) I really felt there was tremendous potential.

Once I got to know the students—and intramural sports was a perfect position to get to know students—I was sold. Motivated, intelligent and fun-loving college students were great to work with. And Prescott was the perfect community for a competitive recreational athlete!

Q: Before becoming Dean of Students, what were some of the other positions you’ve held during your time at ERAU? Which position has been your favorite?

LS: I’ve been Director of Student Activities, Director of Intramural Sports, Athletic Director, Associate Dean of Students, and Dean of Students since 2009.

I’ve enjoyed the responsibility and campus-wide impact I have as the Dean of Students. I appreciate being able to assist students, often times in very challenging personal situations. But I loved my closer interaction with students as Intramural Director. It seemed like the interaction was always positive then. 

Q: What are some experiences that have ‘stood out’ to you over the past 40 years?

LS: The joy and sincere pride Brenda and I feel all the time when we see how our alumni have matured—from college students with a dream of their future, to mature, responsible parents and professionals—it really is heart-warming. Reconnecting with so many alumni over the past year has been an incredible way to culminate our career—and I say “our” career because Brenda has always been an integral and involved part of our life at Riddle.

Stand-out experiences from this entire past year since my ‘announced retirement’ have been humbling. Culminating with Chancellor Frank and Debbie Ayers, Brenda and I being honored at a basketball game with all of the student athletes surrounding the court—that brought tears to the four of us! Just getting to re-connect with alumni after they’ve been gone for a while is hugely appreciated. Staying at one place for the length of time we have, you really do get to cash in on those ‘intrinsic rewards’ they sold us on when I went into education over half a century ago.

Flying back to Ohio in a Challenger 300 corporate jet with just myself and the two pilots—both alumni and friends—then playing golf at Muirfield Village Golf Club, one week before the Memorial, that was a pretty good day!

Q: Is there one particular memory or experience that you can identify as a ‘highlight’ of your time here?

LS: I’d have to share is the story of an alumni who came back about 10 years after graduation. He was doing well in the aviation field at a major international airport. He pulled Brenda and I aside and said, “I don’t know if you ever question your profession—but I want you to know you saved my life! I know it, my parents know it, and I wanted you to know.”

I had intervened during his days as a student when he was headed down a dangerous path, evidently more effectively than I realized. It was a very dramatic moment for Bren and myself. Having the opportunity to interact with so many fine young men and women, and work alongside some outstanding faculty and staff—you hope you can make a positive impact, but I think it’s natural to question your ability to meet your own expectations.

Q: How is ERAU Prescott today similar to what you walked in to in 1979? How is it different?

LS: Students are the same – strong, positive character and highly motivated. More academically serious engineering/STEM students today than our original Aeronautical Science students were in ‘79. What has always impressed me about Embry-Riddle students is their display of respect. They say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, they are polite and intelligent. That hasn’t changed. The quality of our staff and faculty is incredible! I work every day with smart, caring people – who are much more intelligent than I. And over the past twenty years – we’ve been able to keep dynamic faculty and staff. In the first twenty years, it seems like if someone dynamic came in, we couldn’t keep ‘em. That changed – to the benefit of the institution and the students.

What’s different? The campus has really matured. It looks like a college campus now. There are University styled structures and the facilities and grounds are in the best shape ever. But, that’s really the obvious. Dr. Frank Ayers’ contribution to the Prescott Campus cannot be over-stated. We had some very good Chancellors, Dan Carrel was tremendous – but whether it was timing or individual vision or an outstanding leadership team— yea, maybe that’s it—the progress the Prescott Campus has made in the past ten years under Dr. Ayers’ leadership has been spectacular!

Q: What has kept you here for 40 years, and what are you going to miss the most?

LS: What’s kept me here? Great combination of opportunities at ERAU and Prescott. As I said before, Prescott is the perfect location for a competitive recreational athlete. The friendships I’ve developed and the experiences I’ve had playing softball, basketball, racquetball, golf… Prescott’s a great place to live – and raise your children. Match that with outstanding caliber of people who are drawn to ERAU and it’s the proverbial “no brainer”.

The optimistic aura of college students is probably what I’ll miss most. Being able to join a group of 20 year olds in a conversation. I approach students on campus, it’s “Welcome Dean Stephan”; I approach them anywhere else, it’s like, “what’s this old guy want…?”

Q: What do you want to do after leaving ERAU? Are you going to stay in Prescott?

LS: Travel, play more golf, just enjoy life with my wife and family. I’ve said about the only two goals I have are: 1) to plan a fall vacation – you don’t get fall vacations in education. And, 2) to have a second or third cup of coffee in the morning on our back deck. Relax in the morning instead of having to rush off to work.

We plan to stay in Prescott at this stage, we love it here. But are open to other opportunities, experiences or interests that might arise - although I do not foresee any at this time.

Q: What’s your advice for Dr. Rhondie Voorhees, our next Dean of Students?

LS: You’ve joined a great team at an outstanding campus – do things your own way and you’ll be fine. They’ve found an outstanding replacement in Dr. Voorhees and I’m extremely confident that she take the department to new heights.

Q: What would you tell a prospective student considering ERAU Prescott?

LS: Visit the campus, walk around, talk to current students – do you feel like you belong here? You should have a feeling of belonging to a campus. Then, once you’re in – attend class. Vow to never miss a class. Attendance is the number one key to success, especially at a small campus. And it is critical to get involved with campus life – join a club, play intramurals, find a study group – get connected. It’s a great campus, but you gotta join in.