Remembering Donald M. Wonderly
Remarks at the OSPA 2013 Fall Conference
Dr. Kathy McNamara
Good afternoon. I am deeply honored to say just a few words in memory of Don Wonderly, who died at the age of 93 on September 17th of this year.
Tom Fagan, 2-time NASP President, former Communique Editor, NASP Historian, and Don’s first PhD student, wrote a memorial that will appear in The Ohio School Psychologist. As Tom’s tribute describes it, Don’s career was long, varied, and colorful; he was a professional musician, family services case worker, classroom teacher, school psychologist, student services administrator, private practitioner, and university professor. He was a pioneering member of OSPA, hailing back to the glory days when conferences were raucous events held at Atwood Lake Lodge, and members kicked in a grand total of one dollar to pay his salary as the association’s first executive secretary. To Tom’s inspiring and touching tribute, I will add only a few personal reflections about Don.
I thought it strange when my first encounter with Don involved my racing to keep up with him as he hurried through the Student Center at Kent State. I thought I was being interviewed for admission to the Kent School Psychology program, but that experience and countless others cemented my perspective of him as someone who was always late for an engagement; al-ways preoccupied with some larger question; and always on his way to launch yet another challenge to the status quo. Don was often a dinner guest in my home, and those events were always seasoned with lively and often contentious debates that he would deliberately instigate after dinner ended and his drink had been refilled. He challenged my feminist views and I fought back as he knew I would. In later years, he taunted me by turning up the volume on the radio in his office so I would be forced to listen to Rush Limbaugh rail against the politics of liberals and feminists. Of course, Don had the last laugh when, in 1991, he published a book in which he included me in his acknowledgments by saying, “Dr. Kathleen McNamara was perhaps our conscience, pointing out the need for recognizing the unique contributions of females in every professional field, while preparing endless examples of gourmet cuisine that belied her feminist leanings.”
Alex Thomas has reminded us that “education is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything you learned,” and I can’t think of anyone who educated me to the extent that Don did. Two lessons have remained clear to me as a result of that education. The first is to always ask, “so what?” I recall having written what I thought was an eloquent first chapter to my dissertation, explaining how existing research was related to my topic. To my dismay, Don responded with the starkly dismissive comment, “So what?” He had little patience for the dry, dispassionate approach so characteristic of published research, and snorted (literally) at those of his students who defended their points in class by simply citing someone else’s research findings. Don demanded to know first why an idea was important enough to spend time defending. And, to answer that, he proposed his second lesson: Get in the bathtub and think about it. I have no doubt that his bathroom was an intellectual sanctuary of sorts, stocked with books and papers, and I learned that a coffee stain imprinted on my work was Don’s way of certifying that he’d given it careful review. While I never found the bathtub to be conducive to deep thought, I have noticed that the ideas I’ve eventually given up and left behind are those that I never thought through as deeply as Don would have expected me to.
I was a student of Don’s in the late 70s and early 80s, when the recently-adopted PL 94-142 dominated the playing field for school psychologists, focusing attention on multi-factored evaluations, report- writing, and special education eligibility. Don liked to say that a monkey could be trained to give IQ tests, one of his trade-mark assertions that sent colleagues into a tailspin of outrage. Many don’t know that the company he founded with several former students, PSI Associates, was created to offer schools an alternative approach to school psychological services, one that was based on a model of prevention that also formed the basis for a federal training grant to Kent State. P-S-I stood for “prevention: systems intervention,” and some of you might recognize that as the same principle that defines the tiered approach of today’s RTI model.
I don’t use the term “genius” lightly, but that is what Don Wonderly was. Looking back at my career, I see his influence at every step of the way, a point on which my students – who last week spent a class period on the “so what” question – would have to agree. The world is a far less interesting place without Don Wonderly’s insight and wit, and I’m grateful to have been a student of both.