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Dorothy Blosser Whitehead, Honorary Alumna

Dorothy Blosser Whitehead, January 16, 2015, in Milwaukie, Oregon.

Honorary Reed alumna Dorothy Whitehead had a distinguished career as a teacher and trainer in the field of learning disability.

She was raised in Berkeley, California, where her father worked for Standard Oil and her mother taught mathematics and language. The family was a musical one and Dorothy loved singing and had the gift of perfect pitch.

An athletic and an outdoor person, Dorothy joined the Sierra Club when she was 17. She roller skated across the Golden Gate Bridge when it first opened and made her last downhill ski run at 80. Her family notes that Dorothy was “equally comfortable sipping coffee next to a struggling fire in the rain forests of Washington to dining next to Burt Lancaster at a Reed College dinner.” She and her family camped and ran the rapids of Oregon rivers. She sailed on the fjords of Norway to the Arctic Ocean and walked onto the ice of Antarctica. She traveled to the mountains of Tibet and loved the ancient shores of the Mediterranean. 

During World War II, Reed professor Robert Rosenbaum [mathematics 1939–53], serving as a navigator in San Francisco and needing a place to stay with his wife Prof. Louise Johnson Rosenbaum [mathematics 1940–53] and their son while in the Bay Area, connected with Dorothy’s mother—then a widow—who welcomed the Rosenbaums into her home. Through Robert, Dorothy met Carleton T. Whitehead ’41. While Carleton served in the navy in the South Pacific during World War II, he and Dorothy corresponded and Dorothy completed an undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley in psychology and elementary education. They were married when he returned from the war. In the early years of their marriage, Carleton worked for the Civil Aviation Authority as a flight control officer, and then an offer from Reed president Duncan Ballantine [1952–54] led the family to Reed. Dorothy and Carleton, along with their three-year-old daughter Cynthia [Whitehead ’71], moved into faculty housing. Reed had a “very warm, friendly atmosphere,” Dorothy told Michael O’Rourke ’66 in an interview in 2010. During the years 1952 to 1983, Carleton served as alumni director and secretary of the college.

Lisa [Whitehead Peacock ’75] and Eric were born during those years and Dorothy was busy with the care of the family, but she was also drawn into a wide range of activities on campus. She served as president of the faculty women’s club and was a member of the Reed Women’s Club. She worked with Prof. Herb Gladstone [music 1946–80] to make costumes for Gilbert and Sullivan productions, and helped to refurbish everything from dorms to college offices. “Whatever needed to be done, we were always making the college a better place.”

“Reed was such a community,” writes Eric. As a “Reed brat,” Eric remembers being babysat and having overnights in both faculty and staff homes during his years on campus. “That kind of trust builds great friendships.” There were no divisions within the community and all were afforded respect, said Dorothy. “It just made for a very warm, friendly atmosphere.” Dorothy maintained friendships with many she met during that time, and their children, including the Delords, Goldschmidts, Gwilliams, Hamiltons, Reynoldses, Rhynes, Rubens, and Scotts. Other friendships formed then and cherished were with Virginia Oglesby Hancock ’62, and Martha Darling ’66.

One critical intersection in Dorothy’s life came about with the arrival at Reed of Dee Tyack and her husband, Prof. David Tyack [education and history 1959–69]. Educated in teaching reading to children with dyslexia, Dee offered to train interested members of the Reed Faculty Women’s club in her method. “This ignited a passion in Dorothy that would leave an indelible mark on the world,” writes her family. Working with a dozen volunteers, Dorothy created Language Skills Therapy, a tutoring program, in 1966. She enrolled at Portland State University, where she earned an MS in special education in 1968, and later served as an instructor at the university and at Lewis & Clark College. She also was the learning disabilities specialist at Barnes School in Beaverton.

“Dorothy was a quiet yet persistent force in the field of dyslexia for over 50 years,” says her family. “She was adamant about what worked and continued to fight the reoccurring battles over what didn’t.” She served as a board member of the Orton Dyslexia Society (International Dyslexia Association), helped form the Oregon branch of the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, and was a member of the Council for Exceptional Children and International Reading Association’s Division of Children with Learning Disabilities.

An expert in training and teaching, Dorothy founded the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, a select national group that established high standards for the professional certification of tutors and instructors. She also began the Blosser Center for Dyslexia Resources to continue her training program using the academy standards and curriculum. She is the author of the manual Unlocking the Power of Print, which is used worldwide by tutors who assist students with dyslexia in learning to read.

A lobby at the Oregon Health and Science University is named for Dorothy and her name is engraved on a plaque in the Sylvia Richardson Hall of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) headquarters in Maryland. In 1991, the IDA presented Dorothy with the Samuel T. Orton award, their highest honor, to recognize her contribution to a critical field of special education. “She has salvaged the hopes of countless children; she has encouraged their parents; she has educated their teachers; she has modeled exemplary teaching to their tutors.”

Survivors include her children and her granddaughter and grandson, Laurel and Colin Peacock.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2015

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