Dr. R Orin Cornett, PhD, Gallaudet University
A Brilliant & Giving Educator, Scientist, & HumanitarianBy Mary Elsie (Henegar) Daisey
We are here to pay tribute to Dr. Cornett — but I am concerned about my ability to do it adequately – just as when I last made an important speech for him – two years ago when he sent me to Australia as his representative on a People to People Ambassadors delegation of professionals working with deaf and hard-of-hearing people. I was worried then that I would do it right for him—as I am worried now that I can adequately say in a few words all that he has meant to me and my family and to so many others. I am concerned because I know he’s watching and he knows what we are saying about him—the way I’ve always felt he knows and cares. He was my teacher, my boss, my mentor, and my friend. And I feel he will always be with us—because of the marvelous gift he gave us and the lasting impressions he made on us.
I did not know what a lasting effect he would have on my life when we first met him back in September1966. Our 2-year-old daughter, Leah, had just been diagnosed profoundly deaf and we knew absolutely nothing about deafness. Dr. Cornett’s assistant, Barbara Caldwell, began our education by explaining the current oral and manual options and then the new communication system her boss had just developed. It was called Cued Speech and he was anxious to have a family try it. When we met with Dr. Cornett, he convincingly described his system but cautioned that it had never been tried with a deaf child and that we should go home and think about it. He said we must realize that his enthusiasm was because Cued Speech was "his baby" – he believed it would work but he did not know that it would. In other words, he needed a guinea pig family to prove it would work — that the use of Cued Speech would provide for a deaf baby the natural language development, communication skills, and reading ability to function comfortably and optimally in the wide world around us.
We immediately decided to try Dr. Cornett’s new system and thus acquired the honor of being the first family to benefit from the use of Cued Speech. And we discovered in just one month that it was working! We had a remarkable communication system that allowed our family of five children to communicate with each other and their parents, and our deaf child was learning language and becoming a truly participating member of that family. Cued speech worked!
During this exploratory process Dr. Cornett was always there for us, and we learned that he was a person of great warmth and concern for others. We felt he truly cared about our family – as so many other families felt in succeeding years.
When Dr. Cornett was confident enough to spread the word about his invention, he wrote the first article published on Cued Speech, in the American Annals of the Deaf, February 1967, and he acquired the first Federal Cued Speech grant for a workshop to train 100 teachers of the deaf in the summer of 1967. I then began to work for Dr. Cornett and experienced the professional relationship which continued for the rest of his life. We had the excitement of expanding the use of Cued Speech across the country and around the world as we hosted visitors from many countries and he adapted Cued Speech to nearly 60 languages and dialects. As his fertile brain kept up the quest to help deaf people, he invented the AutoCuer and we carried out several projects to determine its viability.
Working with him was a challenge – he was always a teacher at heart and he expected us to argue and debate with him. He had a great sense of humor but could also be a stern taskmaster, even on occasion timing how long he heard chit-chat in the outer office. He encouraged the pursuit of higher education, but also gave us opportunities – teaching, writing, representing him – based on our abilities, not how many degrees we had acquired.
I believe I worked directly for him longer than anyone else – and then continued my association with him when I left Gallaudet to establish the Cued Speech Center in North Carolina. He continued as my mentor and advisor during the five years I was president of the National Cued Speech Association. And then our last great collaboration began, the production of the 820-page tome Cued Speech Resource Book for Parents of Deaf Children. We spent months writing and mailing manuscripts back and forth and spent many hours together on the phone, still arguing and debating, one of his greatest working joys. And he continued working until near the end of his life. In one of my last phone conversations with him he was excitedly telling me his plans for attending cue camps this past summer. He was always available, interested, and supportive of families and professionals who called him. And he passed on by example that sense of support and helpfulness. I know he gave me a mission in life – to give other families the benefits of Cued Speech which he provided for us!
Some of us feel remorse that Dr. Cornett was not awarded a Nobel prize or other grand awards which we think he deserved. But he was modest and not self-seeking. He knew how much we appreciated what he did for us. One of his greatest joys and “paybacks” was meeting and seeing the results of his invention.
We all know he was a genius who methodically and scientifically set about developing Cued Speech to remedy the inadequacies of deaf education. He absolutely succeeded – and those of us who have been personally affected will remember him with great affection and gratitude forever!
Mary Elsie Daisey
December 30, 2002