‘Babe Ruth of Deaf Studies’ remembered

Photo Credit: Zara Aleksayan / Staff Photographer
Photo Credit: Zara Aleksanyan / Staff Photographer

As Dr. Lawrence Fleischer gave the final keynote speech at the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA) conference in Phoenix, Ariz., on Oct. 31, thoughts ran through Jeff Lenham’s mind after Fleischer noted that he was planning an “exit” from the deaf studies field.

“I remember sitting in the audience thinking, ‘does this mean that you’re done with our organization (ASLTA), or are you stepping down and that your daughter is ready to take the lead?’” said Lenham, a deaf studies faculty member.

“It was such a beautiful sentiment, and it seemed to be the perfect timing that he was saying, ‘I am passing the torch,’ but ironically he mentioned an ‘exit,’ and that he has exited from this field in a different way—a much different exit than we had anticipated.”

Students, deaf studies faculty and other members of the CSUN community continued to reflect Tuesday on the life and career of department chair Fleischer, who died Sunday evening after returning to Bob Hope Airport from the conference. He was 64.

Messages paying tribute to Fleischer continued to be posted on a memory wall set up outside the Deaf Studies department’s office.

“Thank you for sharing your vast amount of knowledge and experience with so many students, deaf and hearing alike,” said one message.

“Deaf Studies without Larry is like Hogwarts without Dumbledore!” said another.

At the Stop Audism Event held in front of the Oviatt Library Tuesday, Drew Tolson, vice president of the Deaf Studies Association, noted that Fleischer was very knowledgeable and passionate about the subject of deaf studies.

“There was never a question unanswered,” he said.

Deaf studies major Amber Hulsey said Fleischer “fought strongly for deaf rights and taught children about their culture in their native language.”

Fleischer is being remembered by his colleagues as a leader who devoted his life to advancing education for the deaf in many respects, as well as championing the rights of people in the deaf community.

“He was totally student-centered,” said Dr. Michael Spagna, dean of the College of Education. “He was a powerhouse in the community, he was an academic leader. He was really a charismatic individual. Everyone I know from peers to students drew strength from him.”

Fleischer arrived at CSUN in 1971 for the special education department’s masters program, said Joyce Linden, who worked with him for over 30 years. He was hired by the department in 1973 and remained on this campus with the vision that “Deaf Studies (should) become a separate department. It didn’t belong in special education,” according to Allisun Kale, who has been a lecturer in the department for nine years.

Fleischer pushed for the program’s growth from the special education department to an independent entity under the College of Education in 1994.

In 2007, he oversaw an overhaul in the deaf studies curriculum, expanding the course offerings and adding concentrations in American Sign Language and ASL literature as a response to students who did not want to become interpreters or teachers of the deaf.

Most recently he was working towards resuscitating the National Leadership Training Program for the deaf, originally established in 1962 as the precursor to the National Center on Deafness, Spagna said.

In addition to his numerous accomplishments at CSUN, Fleischer also served as an expert witness on legal cases across the country. Kale said he discussed “the language development of deaf people when they are deprived of their first language of sign language and how it would impact their development.”

Fleischer grew up in a bilingual, bi-religious household in New York with a Jewish father who used ASL, and a Catholic mother who used Quebec Sign Language. He was often teased at school because he had a noticeable accent from his mother’s native language, also known as LSQ, Linden said.

“But he always spoke of his parents with pride,” she said.

His daughter, Flavia, is currently an assistant professor of Deaf Studies and American Sign Language at Utah Valley University, and his granddaughter, Ryssa, is fifth-generation deaf, “a great source of price in the deaf world,” Kale said.

“He had pride for his family and pride for his children,” Linden said.

Kale will personally remember Fleischer as a teacher who strove to maintain integrity in the use of American Sign Language in its true form, emphasizing that English and ASL are two separate languages.

“He was a purist in that ASL has its indigenous roots and its own distinct grammar, and that we have to honor that and not allow contrived systems that put signs in English word order to be believed as a proper representation of what ASL is,” she said.

“As a student … I remember being a young woman and a little bit afraid of him in how beautiful his language was. I thought I’ll never be able to understand that kind of ASL. Here I am, now teaching in the department, and that has been a huge honor and life (gone) full-circle for me to be taught by him. To work under him was really a pleasure. I hope to carry his message, his belief system and his philosophy in this department.”

Fleischer followed in the footsteps of George Veditz, one of the first to ever film American Sign Language in use, by filming and archiving lectures by native speakers of ASL that were invited to the campus.

Linden saw Fleischer as a man who imparted much wisdom, insight and inspiration.

“I would go to him for advice on my teaching or how to handle something with students, even a philosophical question,” she said.

Even though Linden returned to Southern California from the ASLTA conference with a different colleague, she noted Fleischer’s interest in geography and his ability to point out CSUN and other landmarks as a plane would make its final descent towards Burbank.

“I fly out of Burbank periodically, and instead of looking down at the geography, I would look up at the cloud Larry was on,” she said.

Fleischer was both an avid sports person and an enthusiastic sports fan, having come from a very sports-oriented family. His involvement in football and baseball at Gallaudet University, and his tenure as president of the USA Deaf Sports Federation, were a few of many examples of his dedication to sports and fitness. He was also inducted to USA Deaf Basketball’s Hall of Fame, and his daughter participates in snowboarding and other sports.

He especially loved baseball, as evidenced by the baseball memorabilia placed all over his office, Lenham said.

“When we weren’t in a teaching relationship, we were friends,” Lenham said. “We did become friendly rivals, though. He loved the San Francisco Giants, and I love the L.A. Dodgers. We would banter on about our favorite teams when we saw each other.”

“He is the Babe Ruth of Deaf Studies,” he said. “He will be very hard to replace.”

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly quoted Allisun Kale as saying, “He was a purist in that ASL has its indigenous roots and its own distinct grammar, and that we have to honor that and now allow contrived systems that put signs in English word order to be believed as a proper representation of what ASL is.” A typographical error in this quote has since been corrected.