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Dr. Conrad F. Toepfer III, 86, founding father of the middle school movement

Dr. Conrad F. Toepfer III, 86, founding father of the middle school movement

May 4, 1933 – April 20, 2020

Dr. Connie Toepfer, a professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo, was at the forefront of a revolution in American education.

Teaching while completing his doctorate in the late 1950s, he began attending curriculum conferences, where he found a group of like-minded theorists who wanted to replace junior high school with something better.

“We believed that young people in the middle grades were distinctly different,” he said in an interview included in “The Legacy of Middle School Leaders: In Their Own Words.”

“Then, they were called early adolescents,” he said. “At that age, students weren’t early anything. They were in a unique stage of development not addressed in grade K-8 or 9-12, 7-9 or 7-8 schools. We felt that there was need for a three-level system with schools for children, middle schools for students in their middle grade years and high schools for maturing adolescents. So we began to advocate for this sort of thing.”

Dr. Toepfer went on to play a key role in reforming the way students are taught as they make the transition from grade school to high school.

He died April 20 after a long battle with cancer. He was 86.

Born in Buffalo, Conrad F. Toepfer III was a sixth-generation member of a family of musicians. His grandfather, Henry Toepfer, emigrated from Germany to become a cellist in the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, the predecessor of the Buffalo Philharmonic. His father, Conrad F. Toepfer II, also played in the orchestra.

As a boy, he studied violin and viola and was a substitute player with the Philharmonic. An interest in jazz also led him to take up the double bass. He played with touring jazz groups that appeared locally, including the Stan Kenton Band and the George Shearing Quintet, and continued to perform in clubs during his years in graduate school.

After graduating in 1951 from Kensington High School, where he was an honor student, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from UB. He taught English at Cleveland Hill High School in Cheektowaga while completing a master’s degree in secondary English and a doctorate in curriculum planning at UB.

Dr. Toepfer was curriculum director in the Newfane Central School District when he joined the graduate school faculty at UB in 1964. His reputation attracted numerous graduate students to the university and he was adviser to 81 who completed their doctorates.

From 1979 to 1981, he took a leave to start a middle level doctoral program at the University of Georgia. He also served as a consultant throughout North America and Europe on how to set up middle school curricula and spoke to numerous conferences. He retired from UB’s Graduate School Of Education’s Department of Learning and Instruction in 2000.

In a tribute to him following his death, Judith Allen Brough, professor emerita at Gettysburg College, wrote: “He was my professor, mentor, role model, coach, and I often wished he had been my dad. He was a champion for kids, animals, the under-served and peace. He had razor-sharp intellect and wit, and a memory that could have won him millions on ‘Jeopardy.’ ”

He also was an inspiring speaker.

In the My View column in The Buffalo News in 2018, one of his former students, Dan Schwartz, who teaches at SUNY Buffalo State, wrote: “I used to rise at 5 a.m. to drive out to a rural district to teach and then drive back to Amherst to take graduate courses until 10 or 11 at night. I never fell asleep once in Connie’s class. The lectures and discussions were so interesting, exciting and relevant.”

Dr. Toepfer went on to serve as president of the National Middle School Association, now the Association for Middle Level Education. It honored him as one of the Five Founders of Middle School Education in 1994 and inducted him into its Legacy Circle in 2014.

He was the first person inducted into the New York State Middle Level Education Hall of Fame. The National Association of Secondary School Principals give him its William Gruhn-Forrest Long Award for service as chairman of its Middle Level Council for 11 years.

UB recognized him as a Distinguished Alumnus in 1996 and a Career Educator Award in 1999.

His biography appeared in “Who’s Who in American Education” and he was a guest on the "Today" show.

As a young man, he boxed under the name of Toby Hawk and once stepped into the ring with light heavyweight champion Archie Moore.

As Schwartz recalled in his My View column, “Moore knocked him out cold. When Connie came to, a concerned Moore asked him, ‘Is there anything else you can do?’ Connie related he was going to graduate school. A relieved Archie said, ‘Good! You do that.’ ”

He continued performing music through the 1960s, when he was the resident standup bass player at the Limelight Gallery, Buffalo’s premier folk club, backing Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow and Josh White in their appearances there.

As a protest to the exclusion of black players from the American Federation of Musicians, he joined Buffalo Colored Musicians Local 533 and played regularly at the Buffalo Colored Musicians Club, where he was a life member.

He also played with a jazz ensemble of UB professors that included novelist John Barth.

A longtime member of St. Stephen Serbian Orthodox Church, he was a past president of the congregation and an ordained Orthodox subdeacon.

He and the former Mary Jeanne Pepke were married in 1960.

Survivors also include a son, Michael C.; a daughter, Kathryn R. Toepfer Frederick; two grandsons; and a great-grandson.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

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