Margaret Byrd Rawson, 102, teacher who helped children overcome dyslexia

November 28, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Margaret Byrd Rawson, who helped generations of young people overcome the reading disability dyslexia, died Sunday at Foxes Spy, her home near Frederick. She was 102.

Since the mid-1930s, when Mrs. Rawson was a teacher and librarian at a private school near Philadelphia, she had campaigned tirelessly for greater understanding of dyslexia, a neurological disorder that causes difficulty in reading.

Frustrated at her inability to teach a bright second-grader to read, Mrs. Rawson discovered the work of Samuel T. Orton, a neurologist who was the first in the country to identify dyslexia and trace its origin.

Testing the boy, Dr. Orton recognized the signs of what came to be known as dyslexia and returned him with a set of instructions - now called the Orton-Gilligham method - on how to help overcome his reading difficulties.

The boy was soon reading at grade level, and Mrs. Rawson was launched on a lifelong mission. It was often a lonely one, in which she encountered misunderstanding and, sometimes, hostility.

Mrs. Rawson conducted one of the nation's longest-running studies of children with language disorders, tracing for more than a half-century the lives of 56 boys from The School in Rose Valley in Moylan, Pa. Until Mrs. Rawson's death, many of her "boys" - now mostly in their 70s - kept in close touch. Most went on to successful careers.

"That type of research had never been done before, and it probably will never be done again," said Roger Saunders, a Baltimore clinical psychologist who worked with Mrs. Rawson for 44 years. (The Rawson-Saunders School in Austin, Texas, is named for the two.)

Mrs. Rawson was a founder and former president of the Orton Dyslexia Society, now the Towson-based International Dyslexia Association, and in 1973 helped organize the Jemicy School, Baltimore's first for dyslexic children.

As recently as 1998, when she was 99, Mrs. Rawson testified at a Maryland Education Department hearing into the teaching of reading and stayed for the entire four-hour session.

"She had an intellect that was palpable, but she was unassuming," said J. Thomas Viall, executive director of the 13,500-member dyslexia association. "She was the conscience of the learning-disabled community. Without her there would be no International Dyslexia Association."

Mrs. Rawson was born in Rome, Ga., in 1899, and raised in Philadelphia, where she attended Quaker schools. She graduated with high honors from Swarthmore College in 1923, the same year she married Arthur Joy Rawson, an engineer.

Mrs. Rawson and her husband were among the parents who started The School in Rose Valley in 1929, and the couple moved to Frederick in 1946. She taught sociology at Hood College and developed a seminar on dyslexia, its diagnosis and appropriate remedial teaching strategies.

Mrs. Rawson continued to tutor and work as a clinical psychologist at two Frederick County health clinics.

"I first encountered her when I was 8 or 9 and in a public school in Frederick," said William Schnauffer IV, now the 55-year-old operator of an industrial hearing testing firm in Illinois. "I was having a lot of trouble reading and writing, and I had a speech impediment. She worked with me for six years, and I'd have to say that in an educational way, she was the most important person in my life."

Mr. Schnauffer said Mrs. Rawson "would sit me down and tell me I was in a very exclusive club, which included Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Bill Schnauffer."

Mrs. Rawson published extensively, including nine books and numerous journal articles. One of the books, Dyslexia Over the Lifespan, published in 1968 and updated in 1995, described Mrs. Rawson's Rose Valley study.

Mrs. Rawson took up flying in her 70s. She sent out Christmas cards to a mailing list of 500.

She was a member of the Swarthmore, Pa., Friends Meeting and helped found the Frederick Friends Meeting.

She earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1940 and honorary degrees from Swarthmore College in 1983 and Hood College in 1989. The dyslexia association gave Mrs. Rawson a lifetime achievement award on her 100th birthday.

"I've had the unique opportunity to see how lives came out," Mrs. Rawson told The Sun when she turned 100. "These students had all shades of ability and intelligence. Many of them had trouble with language, but with the proper help, most of them succeeded. That's something to look back on."

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

Mrs. Rawson's husband died in 1963. She is survived by a son, Kenneth Rawson of Swarthmore, six grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Another son, Edward Rawson, died in 1986.

The family suggested memorial donations to Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa. 19081; the International Dyslexia Association, 8600 LaSalle Road, Suite 382, Baltimore 21286-2044; or the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, P.O. Box 234, Amenia, N.Y. 12501-0234.

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