It's Veterans Day. Les Shephard, wearing an
American flag tie and eating lunch at his desk, is
reflective. He's thinking about Sept. 11, 2001.
For Shephard, director of UTSA's Texas
Sustainable Energy Research Institute, it's personal.
He spent almost 30 years tackling energy issues at Sandia
National Laboratories in the name of national security. Even
though there was nothing he could have done to prevent the
attacks, he feels some responsibility.
"Veterans Day brings me back to 9/11 and what's good
for the country," he said. "[At Sandia,] we were dedicated to
exceptional service in the national interest. When that happened
… you take those things very personally."
Eight months into his new job at UTSA, he's still committed
to doing what's best for the country.
"It's still service to the country, but it's a different kind
of service," he said. "It comes down to tomorrow's leaders
and making a difference in how they think. I want to share
with them the things I've learned, both the mistakes and the
successes, and hopefully allow them to make a difference
in the future."
Hiring Shephard could be one of the most important moves
for UTSA at a time when the university is vying for Tier One
status, said President Ricardo Romo.
"Energy research has been one of UTSA's top priorities,
and Les brings a vast amount of experience and connections,"
he said. "This institute is going to be globally recognized
because it will tackle energy issues comprehensively."
Shephard's goal as director of TSERI is a lofty one: to unite
representatives from industry, government and academia to
explore alternative energy sources. He will investigate the
best practices for the energy industry in the region, nation
and around the world. The institute will receive $50 million
over 10 years from CPS Energy to research alternative energy
and is tasked with involving every college at UTSA, as well as
other centers and institutes, in doing so.
With a strong emphasis on collaboration, the institute
will work within the Energy Research Alliance of San
Antonio, a partnership among UTSA, Southwest Research
Institute, CPS Energy and San Antonio Water System.
But what Shephard is most excited about is the opportunity
to teach the new generation of energy experts, he said.
In the spring, he'll teach his first energy-related class, one
that he developed. The class is called Sustainable Energy
Systems—Realizing America's Energy Future. It will explore
national and global energy trends and the difficulties of
meeting future energy needs with current practices.
"To me, my job is to ultimately help [students] create
their own vision for who they are and what they are going to
do as individuals when they leave the university, " Shephard
said. "Hopefully, sustainability will be a big part of that, because
that in turn will help change the world and create
leaders for the global community. That's my desire."
Shephard has testified before Congress and led 1,500
employees at Sandia, one of the largest national security
labs, for almost three decades. But at heart, he is an "average
American," said Christine Olejniczak, business operations
manager for the institute.
"He's not outside of the mainstream, so when he talks
about problems and success, they are things that a lot of people
can relate to because he's not living a life that takes place
in any kind of extreme or fringe," she said.
Shephard is uncomfortable with the attention he has received
since joining UTSA. He insists he's just an ordinary
guy who doesn't really like to talk about himself. He earned
both a master's degree and doctorate in oceanography
from Texas A&M University because of his appreciation for
the oceans and the environment. At A&M, the oil industry
was a focus, so it was a natural evolution to concentrate on
energy issues, he said.
Like many San Antonio residents, Shephard's home isn't
solar powered. He drives a 2002 Jeep Wrangler instead
of an electric car. His love of cycling, which stems more
from its recreational and health benefits than its environmental
ones, is evident in the bumper stickers on his Jeep
and the vivid yellow Livestrong bracelet he wears. He purchased
that bracelet while in France to watch the 2005
Tour de France.
"I'm just a regular old guy who enjoys life and enjoys
what I'm doing and enjoys other people," he said.
In fact, it's his love of family and community that Shephard
said drives him. Sitting on his desk is a cluster of framed
pictures of his wife and high school sweetheart, Darlene, to
whom he's been married for nearly 39 years, as well as pictures
of his three children and one grandchild. A dry-erase
board that hangs in his office holds Shephard's notes and, on
the top left side, a message from his daughter written in red
reading, "We [heart] Dad."
For Les and Darlene
Shephard, an ideal Saturday is
outdoors, with evenings spent
at a local honky-tonk, drinking a
cold beer with friends. They love
to brag about their children, all of
them educators, and their 5-year-old
English sheepdog, Berkeley.
"Family comes first, his faith,
his country," Darlene Shephard
said of her husband. "He works
really hard. He's very committed
to whatever he decides to do.
And it shows in his track record."
"Commitment is a big part
of who I am," Shephard agreed.
"It's my commitment to the
country, commitment to what
I'm providing to this institution
and city, commitment to my family and commitment to making
the world a better place."
Energy is the key to making the world a better place,
"I think energy and water, sustainability, clearly play a
very important role [in the world]," he said. "It's well understood
that energy is the key to economic prosperity and
with that comes many other benefits—education, technology
that serves society and a number of other things that
are very important."
Despite a struggling economy, Shephard believes that the
U.S. is in an enviable position.
"I think we have an inherent responsibility to enable
those in other parts of the world to experience what we have
and the joy it brings," he said.
And that's what he sees as his job, to spread knowledge
to the rest of the world by educating the next generation of
scientists and researchers. Once again becoming reflective,
Shephard talks about his life—the decades he's shared with
his wife, what he's learned along the way and all the things
he has yet to do.
"You come to a place in life where the amount of time
you have left versus the time you have spent here are disproportionate,"
Shephard said. "You start to focus on things you
can do with the amount of time you have left so that you can
make a difference."
Energy will continue to be a global challenge, he said,
one that will outlive him. And so it's with the younger generation
that energy solutions lie.
"We're creating citizen leaders," he said. "That fires my jets."