The Power of Speech

Ole Miss alumni lead American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

by Jeffrey Alford

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Spring 2009 Ole Miss Alumni Review.

UM alumni Sue Hale (left) and Tommie Robinson have enjoyed a working relationship for more than 20 years. Photo by Kevin Bain

When Sue Hale’s son, Scott, was 4 years old, he asked how Tommie Robinson was related to the family. It was an innocent, but revealing question from the toddler. Twenty years later it’s still not easily answered.

You see, the relationship between Hale (BAEd 72, MCD 75, SpecCD 78) and Robinson (BA 84, MS 86) is a complicated one. At the time, Tommie L. Robinson Jr. was an undergraduate in the communication sciences and disorders program at The University of Mississippi and Sue Hale was his faculty adviser. But her son’s question clearly suggested something more than the typical teacher/student connection.

“Both of us grew up in rural Mississippi, not from advantaged backgrounds,” says Hale. “Ole Miss—especially the faculty in the communicative disorders department—has had an extraordinary influence on both our lives.”

Robinson, more effusive, puts it this way:

“When I came to the university and met Mrs. Hale, I was in love with the idea of becoming a speech-language pathologist. There was a wonderful sense of security here. The people were kind, compassionate and supportive. The faculty were ‘help-minded’ people. She became my adviser, mother, big sister and eventually my colleague.”

Today, the two have risen to the top of their profession. Hale went on to Vanderbilt in 2000, where she is now an assistant professor of hearing and speech sciences and director of clinical education at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Robinson is an associate professor of pediatrics at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences and director of the Scottish Rite Center for Childhood Language Disorders in the Children’s Hearing and Speech Center at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Hale is serving this year as president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Robinson is president-elect and will succeed her as president in 2010.

They are the Mississippi Mavens—products of The University of Mississippi communication science and disorders program who are serving as spokespersons for a prestigious national organization representing more than 130,000 audiologists, speech and language pathologists, clinicians, researchers and medical people in private practice.

The role is not an honorary position. It is hard work. Hale expects to make 40 trips on behalf of the association this year, testifying before Congress and representing the organization at state and regional meetings.

“Tommie always thought he would be president of the association,” says Hale. “I never expected to see my name on a ballot and never aspired to be a national spokesperson. But the Ole Miss faculty put us in leadership positions and instilled in us that this was not just a job—it was a profession with a responsibility to serve.”

Both say they were motivated by the example and encouragement of the Ole Miss faculty. Robinson says his role models were Hale, Gloria Kellum, Tom Crowe and Margaret Wylde, among others.

“I’ll never forget in 1986 Dr. Crowe told me that one day I would be president of ASHA,” says Robinson.

“Tommie always had goals, and the faculty quickly realized that he was destined for leadership in the profession,” says Hale. “We were a small department, with a small faculty. When we saw potential for excellence, we did everything we could to help you realize it.”

Gloria Kellum, a faculty member in communication sciences and disorders since 1966 who served as vice chancellor for university relations for the last 10 years, was one of those who saw a spark in the two.

“The graduates of the department are a special group of alumni of the Ole Miss family. We are fortunate to have Sue and Tommie represent Ole Miss in such distinguished leadership positions. We are proud of them and know they will represent us well,” says Kellum, who retired from the university June 30.

Now colleagues, Hale and Robinson carry on the bond that was forged as teacher and student, mentor and mentee, working to ensure the legacy is passed on to the next generation of students. In addition to their other responsibilities, the duo currently are serving as advisers on a self-study committee as the department prepares for reaccreditation next year. They are concerned that a shortage of Ph.D.s is leading to a faculty shortage that eventually will lead to a shortage of professionals in the field.

They also want to ensure that the spirit of leadership and service that has always been a hallmark of the department is carried on in future generations of graduates from the Ole Miss program.

“It is an honor to be asked to serve,” says Robinson. “It’s what they taught us.”

Hale expresses similar sentiments more philosophically.

“We are members of a community who are called to help people with communication challenges—with problems of the human condition. Helping others gives us great satisfaction, and Ole Miss is where we learned to satisfy that calling.”

That calling brought Hale and Robinson together more than 20 years ago in a family that is the Ole Miss Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. It is a family bond that continues today, and one they are determined to pass on.

“Every time I return to the campus it just feels good to be home,” says Robinson.

Not an easy concept to explain to a 4-year-old, but time tells the tale.