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Remembering Robert Shearer

By Theresa Harrington
Tuesday, June 28th, 2011 at 5:55 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington.

A memorial service will be held Thursday to celebrate the life of Robert “Bob” Shearer, who founded the Robert Shearer Preschool for deaf and hard-of-hearing children on the Gregory Gardens Elementary campus in Pleasant Hill.

Shearer and the school he founded were unique — attracting speech therapists from around the country who wanted to work with him and his innovative programs, said his wife and a longtime coworker.

Dena Zachariah, whom Shearer recruited as a speech therapist in 1970, sent the following (excerpted) e-mail to the Times regarding her mentor and friend:

“This man was instrumental in not only finding funding for and creating a state-of-the art preschool for deaf and hard-of-hearing children — complete with an audiologist booth and soundproof rooms — but also building one of the finest school-based special education programs in the nation.

I came from Washington Univ. in St. Louis, Mo. with my masters in hand to work in Mt. Diablo, based on its reputation, in 1970.

In his later years, Bob had a stroke which left him with severe communication restrictions. Despite his stroke and severe disability, he rode BART to Hayward State (CSU) for many years to let the graduate student speech pathologists practice their skills on him. He recruited speech therapists from that program to come work in Mt. Diablo Unified…He was a remarkable man who built a remarkable program.”

When I spoke to Zachariah last week, she told me that Shearer was in charge of interpreters for the deaf, speech and language resource specialists and the deaf education interpreters.

The program started in the 1950s, but the preschool opened in the 1960s, she said. Shearer hired many women, who were proud to be known as “Bob’s girls” at the district office, she said.

The school, renamed for him in 2009, now serves a variety of special needs children with various disabilities, she said. Shearer also established the district’s adaptive PE program for special needs children, she added.

“That program started originally in a trailer in the 1960s and then it was spread throughout the school district,” she said. “All campuses who qualified would get adaptive PE so the children could benefit.”

She also greatly admired his willingness to “let himself be used as a guinea pig by the students who were learning to become speech therapists” at Cal State Hayward. While there, he would ask young speech therapists to contact the Mt. Diablo district regarding job openings, she said.

“So, we recruited through Bob despite his severe speech and communication problem,” she said.

In addition, he would travel to conferences with district administrator Berry Murray to recruit speech therapists, she said.

“Berry actually started hiring people based on who he would bring to her,” said Zachariah, who retired five years ago.

Shearer’s wife, Mary, spoke lovingly to me about her husband, with whom she shared 59 years of marriage.

“Our anniversary was June 14,” she said. “He passed on the 18th.”

Like Zachariah, Mary said her husband built a strong professional reputation for his program.

“He recruited the cream of the crop in the whole USA,” she said. “Some couldn’t believe the school was being built, because it was unique. Families were calling to find out if he had any services for deaf children. There weren’t any others around that did preschool. He was like 30 years ahead of his time.”

Even Children’s Hospital in Oakland sends children to the school, she said, proudly.

“His teachers just loved him,” Mary said. “And the families. He had a great parent club. One family moved here from New York so their daughter could go to the school.”

After children left the preschool, they attended Westwood Elementary, El Dorado Middle School and Concord High School, Mary said.

“One of the girls was the first deaf cheerleader at Concord High School, then got a masters degree and was employed at Concord High — Susan Vaccaro,” Mary said. “She was the pride and joy there — kind of the start of what others could do too.”

Those he hired were very talented and dedicated, she added.

“They were so beautiful, inside and out,” Mary said. “These people stayed on like 30 years. Some of them are still there.”

Zachariah and some of her coworkers spearheaded the movement to rename the school for Shearer in 2009, Mary said.

“She got in touch with some of the other therapists and petitioned the school board to do this,” Mary said. “So, I took Bob and told him they were going to honor Dena.”

Instead, Shearer and his wife heard the petition, supported by speech therapists who told trustees how the district’s programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing children evolved.

“They school board had no idea how this all came about,” Mary said. “The school board unanimously approved it — which was such an honor — to do this before he passed.”

After devoting his career to helping those with speech and hearing difficulties, Shearer suffered a stroke in 2000, which severely impacted his own ability to communicate.

“He had aphasia — a language disorder — which was crazy,” Mary said, “because that was his profession.”

But his disability didn’t prevent him from enjoying his retirement passion: golf.

“He couldn’t read,” Mary said. “He could write, but he couldn’t make sentences. Imagine how frustrating that was. But he could sure play golf.”

The public is invited to a celebration of Shearer’s life at 1 p.m. Thursday at St. Anne’s Catholic Church, 1600 Rossmoor Parkway in Walnut Creek. A reception will follow.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Robert Shearer Pre-School, 1 Corritone Court, Pleasant Hill, CA(94523), designated “in memory of Bob Shearer.”

Do you have memories of Robert Shearer or his programs that you would like to share?

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