Minnesota Deaf Heritage Oral-Visual Interview with Robert “Bob” Harris
This interview with Robert “Bob” Harris (RH) was incorporated into the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans’ (MNCDHH) Oral-Visual History Project. This interview was originally produced by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Metro Division (DHHSD) of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. This interview took place in 1997. The interviewer was Robert “Bob” Cook (BC).
A note about translation of this interview: The interview was recorded in American Sign Language (ASL). The interviewer and interviewee used ASL as a first language, and the signed information was translated into vernacular or spoken English by interpreters.
This transcript and the open captions in the video are based on the spoken English information.
Actions are in brackets. Translation notes are in parentheses and italics (using the emphasis font), and they represent additional information and corrections about what was said.
Transcript of Interview with Robert “Bob” Harris
Key to names:
RH = Robert “Bob” Harris (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
BC = Robert “Bob” Cook (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
[Visual of title graphic “Minnesota Deaf Heritage: An Interview with Bob Harris”]
[Robert “Bob” Cook is sitting with Robert “Bob” Harris for the interview.]
BC: Hello. Today I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Dr. Bob Harris.
BC: I’d like to ask you a few questions, starting off of course with some information about yourself and your background.
RH: Well, I was born in Chicago at the University of Chicago Hospital. We had quite a few relatives living in the Chicago area, however my father could not afford to finish law school there. Fortunately, an uncle offered my father a job in Milwaukee, Wisconsin working in a lumberyard. So, our family moved to Milwaukee and that’s where I grew up. I became Deaf when I was eight months old due to spinal meningitis. At that point, my mother did not really believe I was Deaf. Then, when I was two years old when we went to Chicago to see a famous doctor who had developed a new testing procedure for hearing loss. It involved fastening the patients’ arms to the chair and then spinning the chair. I don’t understand how it works but he did diagnose me as Deaf. Then my mother had to decide what to do about my education. The doctor recommended we contact the John Tracy Clinic. My mother began corresponding with them about how I could learn to lip-read. And I started private speech lessons and then at four I attended a public school with a speech program. So, I was with other Deaf students in the speech class until sixth grade. During that time I was mainstreamed for things like math, gym, art, etc. From seventh grade on I was mainstreamed for all my classes with no interpreters. I missed out on a lot during that time but passed my classes. We did have a homeroom, or resource room, for the Deaf students where one of the history teachers would help us with our English. That was always the best time of the day because all of the Deaf students were together in one place and could socialize with each other. The rest of the day I was mainstreamed and was usually the only Deaf kid in my classes. I couldn’t wait for the bell at 3:30 and then I could go outside and play sports. To start with, I was involved with football and other sports but I was so short I had to transfer to the cross-country team. In the winter I would play basketball. I didn’t play sports in the spring. Sports really helped me a lot. Whenever I was involved and we had to split up into teams, I was always picked as a leader. I’m not sure why, but I just went along with it. In high school, in tenth grade, I was cut from the basketball team because I was too short. So, then I was only on cross-country (track). In eleventh grade, I was too old to play sports my senior year. At the same time, my parents divorced and my mother and I moved back to Chicago, where I started attending a new high school. In Milwaukee, my high school had only seventy-five students whereas the high school in Chicago had 5,000, so, that was a big adjustment to make. But I got through it okay. I remember when I was a freshman in high school, my parents, who really valued education, were considering whether I should attend a regular college. They met a famous psychologist from Northwestern University where they have a speech/hearing clinic. Well, let me back up. When I was growing up in Milwaukee, there were no speech therapist in our area. So, I went back and forth on the train to Chicago every Saturday morning on my own. It made me feel very self-reliant and independent. So, I would take the train to the city and then walk to Northern University. During high school, I would go into Chicago on Saturday morning, having my speech training, and then get back on the train, and then rush off to my Saturday track meets. There was a lot going on! When I was still a freshman in high school I had heard a little bit about Gallaudet from a neighbor of mine who was also Deaf. When I would ask her about it, all she would really tell me was that it was a college for the Deaf. She had grown up in an Oral program so didn’t know a lot about the school. My psych evaluation showed that my English scores were okay, but not good enough to go to college, that I’d be better off going to Gallaudet. My mother really resented that suggestion. I assume she resented it because she never encouraged me to go there or discussed it at all. During my senior year, I was evaluated again, at my mother’s suggestion, and found, to my surprise, that my English scores had increased greatly. I would now be able to go to any college. Looking back, though, I really wish that I would have been encouraged to go to Gallaudet, but, how could I have known? There was some concern that Gallaudet might be too easy for me, but I decided to go anyway. I had already spent so many frustrating years in hearing high schools. I remember asking my teacher if I could be excused from class and just study in the library. I was always turned down. When I informed my father of my decision to go to Gallaudet, he accepted my choice without argument. So, he and I flew off to Gallaudet. When I arrived there what I experienced was culture shock. I really wasn’t emotionally ready for that environment. So, I ended up transferring to a college closer to home. Instead, though, I still wanted to go back to Gallaudet. So, when my senior year arrived and many other students were going off to Europe – France, Germany, Italy – to study a foreign language, I proposed to go to Gallaudet and study sign language. Well, the only requirement was that I take one sign language class first. So, that is how I first began to learn sign language. And at the age of twenty-two, my teacher was a woman named Lorraine Sullivan. Her husband is Frank Sullivan, who was president of the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf. Well, Lorraine really opened up the Deaf world to me, introduced me to many Deaf role-models. It was an amazing time. So, I finally headed off for Gallaudet during my senior year. It was one of the best times of my life, being in the Deaf world. And then -
BC: I’m curious why you say that was the best time of your life. Explain more about that.
RH: My friendships. You see, when I was in high school I was constantly on my own. Other students would chat with each other and I couldn’t participate in that. When I was at Gallaudet, I was included in everything. I could decide for myself what I wanted to do or not do. I knew what was going on. Those friendships were important. I went back home and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and then went to New York University for five years and received a degree in psychology. NYU was also one of the best times for me, as I had the opportunity to meet many families where the parents and the children were Deaf. It was great and felt like “home”. Those experiences helped me to prepare my Ph.D. dissertation. I ended up researching the differences between Deaf children of Deaf parents and Deaf children of hearing parents, the effects that can have on personality development. My hypothesis, which was borne out of my research, showed that Deaf children born of Deaf parents’ psychological development was more complete. Interestingly enough, there was a doctor in the field who believed that behavior was directly linked to the ability to hear. I really disagree with that. COMMUNICATION is what is of greatest importance. I had proof of this fact with my own research. I went and studied Deaf families and their interactions and then developed a method for hearing parents to utilize this type of interaction with their Deaf children. I think that the bilingual/bicultural philosophy follows a similar concept. It’s interesting.
BC: So, what made you want to move to Minnesota? It’s quite a cold place to live...
RH: I agree! Well, after I finished things up in New York, it was time for my internship. I moved to Rochester, New York, where there was a great clinical psychology program at the University of Rochester. That program was in cooperation with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and the Rochester School for the Deaf. So, it was perfect. It was a good time to be involved in that program. Well, before I had left New York City, I met Dr. Steve Croug (Steven Chough). I met him through some of the things I was involved with in New York. Eventually we both left: I went to Rochester; He came to Minnesota. Well, when it came time for me to find job, I applied in San Francisco, Los Angeles, D.C., Chicago, and Minnesota – but Minnesota was really at the bottom of my list. San Francisco would be a beautiful place, L.A. was too humid, the job in Washington D.C. was as a counselor not a psychologist. They thought I could start with that and move into a psychologist position later... but there was no guarantee. Chicago wasn’t a very good salary. My connection to Minnesota was through Steve Croug (Steven Chough). And it looked like it was now my turn to check it out. I remember arriving in November, and expecting it to be so cold, I was bundled up, and when I arrived it was 70 degrees outside. I couldn’t believe it! He was a great planner and wanted me to feel welcome, so I was invited to give a presentation at Ramsey Hospital, as well as at the Deaf Club at Thompson Hall. I felt very welcome here. So after that I was offered a job here. At the time I was also feeling like my father may not live much longer and I should move somewhere fairly close to him. That intuition proved right as he passed away a year later. That’s how I came to be here, and I’ve been here twenty years now. Do you want to know my secret for surviving the cold winters? I only count ten months in a year. I don’t count January or February.
BC: Tell me about your marriage and your family life.
RH: OK. I moved here in 1976. That fall I was leading a workshop for a Deaf Leadership Training Program. There was one woman among the participants whom I fell in love with at first sight. And we were eventually married. Her name is Evie and she attended the school for the Deaf (Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf – MSAD). She grew up signing and I grew up using the oral method. So, it’s a marriage of two cultures. We have two children, a thirteen-year old daughter and ten-year old son, both are hearing. Our daughter enjoys dancing, artwork and music, while our son enjoys all sports. He likes puzzle games.
BC: Can you tell me more about – I do understand that you have two children. Your wife Evie is Deaf, but how did she become Deaf? I understand you are Deaf due to spinal meningitis, but what about Evie?
RH: She was born Deaf, as was her sister. She does have some residual hearing, but was never allowed to take speech reading. She is a good teacher of ASL. In fact, she was the first person hired to teach at the University of Minnesota. After we had met, she returned to Gallaudet. That was during her prep year there. She eventually married someone else. They later divorced and we met again. She was ready to return to Gallaudet, but I said no, I wanted to keep her here, and would pay for her to attend the University of Minnesota if she would stay. She wishes she had gone to Gallaudet, but that’s life.
BC: I understand you’ve had a change in careers from a psychologist to a successful businessman. What type of business are you involved in now? Tell us more about that.
RH: Well, my father was a businessman. He had his own lumberyard. I worked for my father for three or four summers and got a taste of what that was like. I didn’t want to work for my father anymore due to the lack of communication. I wanted to look for someplace where I could communicate with other Deaf people. So, there weren’t many options at that time, but my dream had always been to become a superintendent of a Deaf school. In college, I studied psychology, which I loved. I then met a famous psychologist who wrote a book about deafness. His name was Dr. McCay Vernon. He was a real inspiration to me, and encouraged me as a Deaf student, to complete my studies. I told him I wanted to become a superintendent at a Deaf school, and he warned me that the hearing society might not be ready for that yet. I decided to follow in his footsteps, but I never had the opportunity for a career in education. I liked psychology because through my own soul searching, I was able to find my own answers, and I thought it would enable me to help other Deaf people understand themselves better. I was feeling pretty good after I completed my training, but when I started working as a psychologist I found out it was a whole different world. I’d write these beautiful reports, but my recommendations weren’t accepted or followed through on. I came to understand it wasn’t a fault of psychology itself, but rather politics. Politics are very important. They play more of a significant role in changing the educational system than that of psychology. I got into business by accident. At that time, U.S. West had a special financial program, where they would give you a loan towards the purchase of a TTY (Teletypewriter or Text Telephone). Word of this spread within the Deaf community. I called the dealer directly on behalf of a friend, which I thought at the time was no big deal. I found out I could purchase it direct at a ten percent discount. Even though people knew about the U.S. West program, they started contacting me because I could sell them to them cheaper. So I started selling them. Then, ah - the first Minnesota state fair, I set up a booth and things grew quickly from there. I was laid off from my job as a psychologist. I then found a part-time job with the Hennepin County Medical Health Center. I devoted my free time to developing the business, working out of my home. I learned by trial and error. I had to figure out how hearing customers could get in touch with me. I contracted with a private answering service, so I could pick up messages which were left there for me. Now I have twenty people working for me. We’ve been in business for fourteen years, and I still love it. I like the challenge, finding answers to questions, to be able to take my own measure, whether I’m successful or not. It’s fun, I work with different people. There are new products, I work to develop our catalog, It’s really fun.
BC: I see that even though you’ve changed careers, you’re always working with Deaf people. I find that very interesting. Not only your business, and your work as a psychologist, but you’re also involved with the Deaf community. You’re in the Deaf leadership program and various other organizations. That’s in fact how I met you long ago. You remain very active. I know time is running out, but I’d like to ask you my final question. In your experience as a psychologist and as a businessman, what is your view of the Deaf community today? Are attitudes more positive? Have they improved? How much change have you seen over the years?
RH: Hmm, that’s a good question. I just wish I could financially afford to create a new position in my business called “community affairs.” I see this person going out into the community to learn what the needs really are and then meet those needs. I also have a dream of having resources to fund a lecture series, four times a year, where we would bring in people at the national level, and people would come from all over to attend. Unfortunately, I’ve never made enough money to do that. I’d also like to be like the Dayton’s, the department store family, to be able to go and give money to charity. As my business has grown, I’ve been able to do a little of that, but I wish I could do more. I’ve learned many things from the Deaf community. What I used to believe and what I now believe are different, maybe due to my age or experience. But in any case, I think what’s important is that we teach Deaf people how to play the numbers game. That it’s serious, and that’s the way government runs. Knowing that the number of Deaf people is small, we must work in cooperation with other groups. We must find common ground. TTYs are good for Deaf people who sign, as well as oralists. The relay service, captioning, these are things we can work together on. We must put our differences aside. We also need to teach that resources are limited, so we must decide on our priorities. Legislators can’t listen to every request, but if we can show numbers, and people working in cooperation, they will listen to us. So, people need to trust each other, and if we can do that, it means we can consider if what we want will be good for others as well. We can create “win- win” situations, not “win-lose.” If everyone feels they can win, it will be easy to work together and present a united front to legislators. They’ll be impressed, and we’ll get what we want. It’s hard to get people together now, because of Public Law 94-142 (Education of All Handicapped Children Act, also known as, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA). The intent was good, but the end result is not good for Deaf children. I wish parents felt they could win, but they feel like they’re always losing. Parents want what’s best for their Deaf children, but where did they get the information they need. It would be nice if MADC (Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens) had a full time, paid executive director, so that the board could focus on priorities and giving direction, and leave it up to the director to carry it through. It’s also important to have an executive director, because it would be easier to build an image. It would allow people to know who speaks for the Deaf community. Without this position, and constant changeover in personnel at MADC, people never know who is taking the lead. In summary, deafness is like a magnet. Deaf people are drawn together. If there is captioning, they’ll go - if there’s a captioned movie, they’ll go. If there’s signing, they’ll go, or something oral. We have to use that magnet in a positive way.
BC: Thank you. I like the idea of a magnet, it does make sense. I want to thank Dr. Bob Harris for his time.
RH: Thank you. I enjoyed talking with you.