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Rick Lavoie

Carl Nowell: A Career in Special Education

May 2003

Traveling isn’t a lot of fun anymore. The security procedures that have been adopted in our nation’s airports have served to make travel complex and frustrating for frequent flyers. The security lines are shorter but the search procedures are increasingly intrusive. Somehow I don’t feel any safer knowing that the Soccer Mom sitting next to me on the plane has been thoroughly searched, patted, probed and frisked. Oh, well…

Despite the hassles of travel, I continue to truly enjoy my excursions to cities and towns throughout North America. The past several weeks have found me in St. Louis, Toronto, Westchester, Tuscaloosa, Orlando, Long Island, and San Francisco.

These journeys have enabled me to visit countless programs, places and people. Guess which one of those three is my favorite. If you guessed “People”…you win! As I travel I meet new friends at every stop. It is so energizing and confirming to meet the devoted and dedicated parents, professionals and politicians who are “fighting the good fight” for special needs kids. There are some genuine heroes out there.

But as much as my travels provide me with the opportunity to make new friends, I also am able to renew and refresh old relationships. I cherish the opportunity to become re-acquainted with some former colleagues and friends whose paths seem to intersect with mine time and again throughout our careers. These bonds are never really broken by our respective absences….they are merely stretched a bit. And, perhaps, that occasional stretching actually strengthens the bonds. I think so.

In recent weeks, I have crossed paths with a few special people from my past. While speaking at the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa), I was able to spend several hours with Carl Nowell. You probably don’t know of Carl….probably never heard of him! He’s never written a book or published a seminal article. To my knowledge, he has never keynoted a major conference or chaired a national committee. And yet, in a leisurely hour-long ride from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa, Carl taught me more about the History of Special Education than I had learned a Harvard course on the subject a few years ago. Carl knows the history of the field because he has lived it. He has spent his entire adult life in Special Education and Rehabilitation Services. He has helped, guided and assisted countless Alabamans whose career searches have been compromised by learning disorders. He regaled me with stories of his former clients who – through their hard work and his coaching – have “made it” in the workplace. Their productivity has enabled them to contribute to – rather than depend upon – their communities. The pride and sense of accomplishment that Carl feels is obvious in the joy that shows in his eyes as he talks. He refers to these clients as “blessings”. I am sure that they return the compliment.

Carl works very hard at what he does. He keeps up with the very latest research in the field (his thoughts on Asperger’s Syndrome were cutting edge!) and criss-crosses the state daily delivering workshops and vocational counseling sessions throughout Alabama. When he’s not behind the wheel, you will find him meeting with clients or regaling colleagues with his wisdom and his knowledge about Rehabilitation services for adults who struggle with learning. Six day, sixty hour weeks are not uncommon for Carl. And yet he never complains. He knows he is doing important work….good work….God’s work.

Oh, did I mention that last Friday Carl celebrated his 79th Birthday? Carl is a husband, a friend, a counselor, a presenter, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and “D-Day + 3”. Hey, Carl….did you ever know that you’re my hero?

On the last day of April, I delivered two seminars at the Villa Maria Education Center in Stamford, CT. This visit gave Janet and me a chance to spend some time with Carol Ann. She is another special person from our past. Carol Ann is the Director of Villa Maria and has shepherded the program’s growth for three decades. Villa’s early years were humble ones and the children received their daily instruction in small rooms, closets and hallways. But despite the limited facilities, the warmth and skill that radiated from Carol Ann and her staff enabled these kids to “break the code” and learn to read and write.

The success of these charter students spread throughout Fairfield County and Carol Ann embarked on a journey that would greatly expand Villa Maria’s services and facilities. As she toured us through the spectacular library, technology center and classrooms, it was difficult to picture in my mind’s eye, the humble facility that existed when I first saw Villa in 1976. Emerson was correct when he stated, “…an institution is the lengthened shadow of one person.” And Villa Maria Educational Center is the lengthened shadow of Carol Ann.

One of the reasons that I am so fond of Carol Ann is she is walking proof of a long-held theory of mine. I have always been a bit mistrustful of teachers who proudly state the “teaching is my whole life”. They take perverse pride in the fact that they have no life outside of their classrooms. Their single-minded devotion to lesson plans and homework preparation – although admirable – allows them no time to travel, read, stretch or grow.

Not for me. The best teachers I know are dynamic, multi-dimensional people who have stimulating interests outside of their teaching duties. They bring this excitement and enthusiasm into the classroom….and their students are better for it.

Carol Ann is one of those dynamic folks. Besides being a teacher – extraordinaire, she is a professional magician (her sleight –of-hand continually astounds me!), a local political activist, a voracious fundraiser, a former motivational coach for the New York Football Giants, a gifted artist and calligrapher…and a Roman Catholic num. What a package!

What a treat it was to visit with Carl and Sister Carol Ann again. Our time together proved another one of my long-held theories:

“Absence is to love as wind is to fire. It extinguishes the small and enkindles the great.”

With every good wish, Rick Lavoie