Sara W. Ostrom, 75, coordinated speech therapy in Arundel schools

August 17, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Sara W. Ostrom, retired coordinator of speech, language, hearing and vision services for Anne Arundel County public schools, died of Alzheimer's disease Monday at Heritage Harbor Health and Rehabilitation Center in Annapolis. The former Severna Park and Crownsville resident was 75.

Sara Willingham was born and raised in Parrish, Ala. She earned a bachelor's degree in 1951 and a master's in 1957, both in speech therapy, from the University of Alabama. She completed additional graduate courses at other universities, including the University of Maryland.

While studying at Alabama, Mrs. Ostrom became influenced by the work of speech pathologists Ollie Lucy Backus and Jean Beasley. Their 1951 book, Speech Therapy With Children, advocated a conversational group approach when working with children with language disorders rather than the more common, individualized drill-based therapies.

"Before Backus and Beasley, the focus in school therapy for children was mechanization and clinically oriented. Backus and Beasley took a more pragmatic approach to language development, and this was quite unique prior to 1960," said her husband of 49 years, Gene F. Ostrom, a retired clinical psychologist and mental health administrator for Baltimore County.

Rather than engage in endless drills, children interacted with one another in group play. "It was socially accepted interaction, and they learned not only speech but also language and how to relate to one another in a constructive manner," Dr. Ostrom said.

Mrs. Ostrom employed the Backus and Beasley method while holding teaching assignments in Memphis, Tenn., Lincoln, Neb., and Wichita, Kan., before taking a job in the Anne Arundel schools in 1964 -- working in what is called an itinerant practice, visiting three or four schools each week.

For the last 20 years of her career, until retiring in 1991, Mrs. Ostrom held the position of coordinator, responsible for recruiting and directing a staff of 125 that visited 70 of the county's schools.

"Sara herself was a gifted therapist, and she honed the skills of numerous other therapists and integrated the classroom teacher into the process of improving children's speech and language," her husband said.

While much of the department's work was focused on lower grades and special-education students, its staff also worked with middle-grade students who might have had a problem with articulation, stuttering or lisping.

"We work with reading, special-education and kindergarten teachers. We're looking at children as having different learning styles, some visual, some auditory, depending on their perceptual skills," Mrs. Ostrom told The Evening Sun in a 1975 interview.

"She could put people at ease with her warmth, kindness and laugh. She had a great, wonderful laugh that crinkled the corners of her eyes, and she never lost her Southern accent, which added to her warmth," said Shirley Brewer, a retired Anne Arundel schools speech therapist and longtime friend.

"Sara was part philosopher and part raconteur. She did not live in an ivory tower and liked a bit of gossip," Ms. Brewer said. "She was homespun but very bright, and a visionary who saw the big picture but also could manage the small details."

In 1988, the Maryland Speech-Language-Hearing Association awarded special honors to Mrs. Ostrom for her contributions to the field.

Mrs. Ostrom enjoyed travel, visiting Alaska, Hawaii, Rocky Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns, but it was her work that defined her life.

"Her primary interest in life was working with children," her husband said.

Mrs. Ostrom was a longtime member of Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, where she had been a Sunday school teacher.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the John M. Taylor Funeral Home, 147 Duke of Gloucester St., Annapolis.

Mrs. Ostrom is also survived by two daughters, Susan Ostrom-Ives of Derwood and Kristen Thaxter of New Windsor; two brothers, Thomas A. Willingham of Charleston, S.C., and Jack Willingham of Cottondale, Ala.; and five grandchildren.

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