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Western loses beloved professor

By Annelise Jascheck | Freelancer
On April 11, 2012

Last week, the Western community mourned the loss of beloved special education professor Dr. Henry "Hank" Alexander Bersani Jr.

Bersani passed away on Saturday, March 31, due to injuries sustained in a traffic accident. He was 61 years old.

While riding his bicycle along Highway 99W, Bersani was struck by a pickup truck at approximately 11:20 a.m. He was pronounced deceased at the scene. The driver of the pickup truck, Marvin H. Ford, 68, of Monmouth, was not injured and cooperated with police according to Lt. Gregg Hastings of the Oregon State Police.

Bersani had been teaching special education at Western since 1991. He was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and received his Bachelor's degree from St. Michael's College in Winooski, Vt. He went on to earn his Master's and Doctorate degrees from Syracuse University. He accepted a job at Western after serving at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) in the areas of public health and preventive medicine.

In addition to teaching special education, Bersani was an advocate for people with disabilities. He worked with many organizations, including the Forgotten People Foundation, an organization that works with children and adults with special needs in Vietnam.

He gave invited speeches in countries all over the world, including Argentina, Australia, Sweden, South Africa, Nova Scotia, Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Canada. This January, he participated in an international forum on disability issues in Doha, Qatar, and was looking forward to returning there in the fall for a forum on the issue of disability after conflict in poor nations. Wherever he was speaking, he always tried to present a part of his speech in the native language of the area.

His work was nationally recognized in books like Public Health and Disability, Me and My A.T.: Students and their Assistive Technology, Speaking Up and Spelling it Out: Personal Essays on Alternative and Augmentative Communication, and Responding to the Challenge: Current Issues and International Development in Developmental Disabilities, Quality Assurance for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities.

"One of the lasting legacies that Dr. Bersani made was in helping to change the name of one of the oldest and well known professional associations in his discipline. When he first joined, it was called the American Association on Mental Deficiency.  It changed again to the American Association on Mental Retardation and, when he gave his President's speech, it had changed to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. His advocacy efforts helped insure dignity and respect for those individuals for which the Association dedicates its efforts," said Dr. Hilda Rosselli, the dean of the College of Education.

Bersani was the recipient of many awards, including the Mario and Alma Pastega Scholarship Award, the Multnomah County Arc Educator of the year award, the Rosemary F. Dybwad International Travel Fellowship Award, the Mary Switzer Distinguished Research Fellowship, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, the Franklin Smith National Service Award, Association of Retarded Citizens U.S., Public Policy Leadership Fellowship, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, Washington, DC.  He was assigned to U.S. Senator John H. Chaffee and he was a Fellow in the American Association on Mental Retardation.

Bersani also deeply impacted the students and staff that he worked with at Western. "The special education division includes many deaf faculty and students. As chair, [Bersani] took it on himself to learn sign language. He was never completely fluent, but it never stopped him from communicating. In retrospect, it seems natural that [Bersani] would have expected to be accepted participating at whatever level he was capable of.

"He was a champion of augmentative communication to ensure the inclusion of people with severe and profound disabilities. In this particular instance, he was the one at the disadvantage, and, indeed, our deaf faculty and students embraced him and his efforts. It made for a much richer work environment, and he will be sorely missed by all," said Dr. Cheryl D. Davis, the Director of the Regional Resource Center on Deafness.

Bersani was mourned with visitations held on Wednesday, April 4 at the Bollman Funeral Home in Dallas, Ore. and on Thursday April 5, with visitation and Mass at St. Philip's Parish Catholic Church Day Chapel.

On Saturday, April 7, Western held a celebration of Bersani's life in the Pacific Room of the Werner University Center. Friends, colleagues, students and family members spoke about the different aspects of his life and about the ways he impacted the world in an event that included both tears and laughter.

The university has further honored his memory with the establishment of the Hank Bersani Student Scholarship Fund, which will be available to students seeking to complete a teacher preparation program in special education at Western. Donations to the scholarship fund can be made electronically at www.wou.edu/giving.

Bersani loved cycling, traveling and being a teacher, advocate and family man. He is survived by his wife, Lynda, of Monmouth, a son, Alex, and a daughter, Lisa.


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