In Memoriam Stephen Hutcheson

With heavy but grateful hearts, the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders bid farewell to our Beloved Emeritus Stephen Hutcheson (1956-2021), who uploaded his final book to Project Gutenberg on September 27, 2021, one day before he passed away.

Stephen joined DP in July 2004 under the user name “hutcheson” and ultimately became one of our most prolific contributors. Although he proofread and formatted over 75,000 pages, his primary roles were as a Content Provider, Project Manager, and Post-Processor for numerous projects that he shepherded from the beginning steps (copyright clearances, image scanning) to final upload to PG. He also graciously processed items from the collections of other volunteers, with a “kid in the candy store” glee over the latest find. (Anything pertaining to his beloved home state of Tennessee would get top priority!) He completed over 1,000 projects and was also active with Distributed Proofreaders Canada, completing around 200 titles in the Canadian public domain. One of his projects, French Painting of the 19th Century in the National Gallery of Art, was selected as Distributed Proofreaders’ 37,000th title posted to PG and was celebrated in this Hot off the Press blog post.

Stephen was the oldest and only boy of six children reared on a farm in Murfreesboro. His sister, Libby Smelser, recalls that his hay fever kept him indoors, reading voraciously, listening to classical music, playing solo chess. “He was very cerebral, very focused, with wide-ranging interests … his mind had so many tendrils. We sisters thought he was just terribly smart!” Stephen followed in his father’s footsteps, graduating from Middle Tennessee State University and becoming a computer programmer. He and wife Ruth were married for over twenty years, and had two children, Laura and David. Although separated, he and Ruth remained dear friends; she enjoyed accompanying him on his book scouting forays to secondhand shops.

Stephen spent years developing his own tools for post-processing DP projects, requiring a special set of proofreading and formatting methods. Volunteers who braved the learning curve of his “Hutcheson Wiki” guidelines were rewarded with a rich variety of topics that reflected his own eclectic interests: old buildings, “interesting places” (as he phrased it), anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, history of inventions and technology, arts and crafts, cookbooks, botany, U.S. history and geography/geology, mining/minerals, religious history and hymnology, classical music, ornithology and zoology, juvenile mystery/adventure series, and science fiction. He loved coming upon cross-references between books at Project Gutenberg, saying, “That’s the thing about a library: the bigger it gets, the more the books start talking to each other.”

Stephen processed many field guides for U.S. National and State Parks, monuments, nature parks, museums, and locations with historical importance, with a view to having an eBook guide available to any traveler with a smartphone. These were his favorite projects to work on, and he had a penchant for maps and atlases. He inherited a love of birding from his family, and contributed many books about flora and fauna.

Stephen participated in DP’s “Project Not Quite Nancy Drew,” featuring various juvenile series in which young people ran around “unsupervised and unchecked,” solving mysteries and having adventures. His contributions helped expand and even complete PG’s collection of series such as the Camp Fire Girls, Jean Craig, Judy Bolton, Motor Girls, Dorothy Dale, Go Ahead Boys, The Airship Boys, and many more. His sardonic sense of humor was evident in his project comments: “What to expect: Ghosts. Cemeteries. Midnight vigils. Ominous telegrams. Disguises. Trafficking in illegitimate rubber products. City kids lost in the woods on a snowy night. Most frightening of all, efficiency experts in the newsroom. Amnesiacs. And … I forget. But I’m sure our blundering but persistent detective figured it all out, and her father published everything in a special edition of the Star.”

Soon after being diagnosed with leukemia, he was hospitalized in December 2020 until his passing in September 2021, but he continued diligently working on DP projects from his hospital room. He often remarked that DP was what kept him sane, and he worked every day except when the chemotherapy affected his vision. Even when he was in the ICU on a breathing machine, he made the effort to connect to DP. He was determined to reach a personal milestone of 1,000 projects uploaded to PG, which he achieved with about 80 to spare in his final weeks. Ruth recalled,

“Stephen loved his work and his friendships at Distributed Proofreaders. This spilled over into his contacts with the hospital staff as they learned about DP. His ability to continue with DP kept him going throughout his long hospitalization…. I was so thankful he could continue his passion project until almost the last day. It brought him joy, fed his thirst for knowledge, and gave him goals to work toward even on the most difficult days. The hospital staff encouraged him, inquired daily about his projects, kept track of his book count on his patient whiteboard, and celebrated each book completed. After he reached 200 books [posted to PG] while in hospital, staff gave him a celebration party.”

The DP community can certainly relate to Ruth’s phrase “passion project.” Stephen’s passion and dedication is an inspiration. DP offered Stephen the perfect venue for his love of books, his insatiable curiosity, and desire to stay productive until his very last day of life. In turn, he has left an enduring legacy of preserving lovely books across many genres for all the world to have at their fingertips – a treasure indeed. Rest in peace, Stephen. You were one of a kind.

This post was contributed by Lisa Corcoran (Leebot), a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer. Many thanks to Ruth Hutcheson and Libby Hutcheson Smelser for their valuable insight. Photos of Stephen courtesy of Ruth Hutcheson.

3 Responses to In Memoriam Stephen Hutcheson

  1. jjzdp says:

    Lisa, thank you this endearing tribute to hutcheson–he would be pretty chuffed!

  2. genknit says:

    Lisa, what a lovely tribute. I still miss Stephen. His sense of humor, his quest for information, and his indomitable good will are things I will remember always. And his willingness to take on a personal project for me and my family, which you and rfrank helped complete.

  3. Carolyn Jablonski (carolyn-elpaso) says:

    Thank you for leaving us with a face to the name. Once upon a time, when I thought about beginning to post process, I happened to mention this to Stephen in a private conversation, mostly as an afterthought in a private question about one of his NQND books.. He sent me the most detailed response, and I never forgot how much time he must have put into it. I actually ran away from the idea for over a year, but his kindness and dedication not only to an individual but to growing the community will never be forgotton. Rest in peace, dear hutcheson. You made a difference.

Leave a Reply to jjzdp Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: