Hundreds honor MU heart surgeon Hugh Stephenson at funeral

Saturday, August 11, 2012 | 5:31 p.m. CDT; updated 10:22 p.m. CDT, Saturday, August 11, 2012

COLUMBIA — Hundreds of friends, colleagues and family members remembered Dr. Hugh E. Stephenson Jr. on Saturday as a "true Tiger" with an unwavering, lifelong commitment to MU.

The 90-year-old Stephenson died July 26 from Parkinson's disease at his summer home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. The Columbia native, the son of a dentist, grew up two blocks from campus and earned two bachelor's degrees from Missouri. He completed medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, since at the time MU only had a two-year medical program.

In the early 1950s, Stephenson helped secure MU's status as a four-year medical school and teaching hospital in once-rural Columbia while working as a surgical resident at New York's Bellevue Hospital. He soon returned to the MU Medical School, where he would spend nearly four decades as a faculty member and make his mark as a nationally prominent heart surgeon. Stephenson later served as a University of Missouri System curator after his 1992 retirement.

"We owe our very existence as a health sciences university to Dr. Stephenson," said Dr. Hal Williamson, vice chancellor of the MU Health System. "By all accounts, his passion carried the day."

Stephenson is credited with developing one of the first mobile cardiac resuscitation units during his residency. At MU, he was chairman of the surgery department, medical chief of staff and an interim dean of the medical school. He performed the university's first open heart surgery in 1958, and was one of the first surgeons to implant an automatic defibrillator. The medical school named its surgery department after Stephenson in 2003.

Stephenson was an avid college football fan whose front yard was decked out with a pair of goal posts, and his nine books included a history of the lost art of the drop kick. He was an active member and former president of the Beta Theta Phi fraternity. Dozens of his fraternity brothers, young and old, attended the funeral at Columbia's First Baptist Church. He was recruited to join the fraternity by MU student Sam Walton, who would later found Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

"Hugh set the standard for the highest personal and professional integrity, and he will always be a model for our medical students and faculty," said Dr. Robert Churchill, dean of the MU School of Medicine. "I will deeply miss being able to stop by his office to draw on his wisdom as a giant in medicine and as a leader of higher education in Missouri."

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