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September 1, 2003

Longtime headmaster at Austine dies

From: Brattleboro Reformer, VT - Sep 1, 2003

Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- Friends, colleagues, and students of Richard Lane remembered the ex-headmaster of the Austine School for the Deaf as a positive leader who always cared about the students first, and as a visionary who led the Brattleboro school into a new era of deaf education.

Lane died last week after succumbing to cancer. He began as headmaster from 1965 and retired in 1987. In his 22 years at the school, his most important achievement, perhaps, was the construction of Vermont Hall, a building that still serves as the center of the campus.

"His leadership, and his ability to work with the state Legislature made it possible for the school to build the new building," said Peter Longsjo, who was a 24-year-old teacher when Lane hired him in 1966. "He was very committed to the life of the student, and was a leader in bringing girl's sports programs to the campus," Longsjo said.

Lane headed the school during a time of enormous change in deaf education. When he arrived part of the campus conversed orally, while a part of the population used sign language. Tensions between the groups developed, but Lane was able to bring the sides together and get them to move in the same direction, eventually accepting American Sign Language as the predominant mode of communication.

"He was able to keep the school as up-to-date as possible," Longsjo said. "Especially in education, Dick made sure Austine led the way."

"He was very willing and enthusiastic to have his staff go for professional training," said Longsjo.

When Lane came to Austine, deaf students often struggled in public schools. When the federal government passed Public Law 94142 in 1975, which said public schools had a responsibility to all special needs students, Lane steered the Austine School through the uncharted waters.

"Dick Lane was a savvy guy, and he was the first to institute the connection with public school programs," said Richard Virkstis, who was hired by Lane in 1968. "He endured radical change in deaf education."

But beyond Lane's contribution to the physical grounds, and his ability to steer the growth and acceptance of deaf education, his students remembered him for his warmth and humor.

"He always had a smile for the children," said Debbie Hammond through an interpreter. Hammond first came to the Austine school in 1968 when she was 4 years old. She remembered Lane's head of "shocking white hair," and how he would always bend down to talk to children on their level.

"He was willing to talk to the students every day," Hammond said.

When Vermont Hall was being constructed, Hammond remembered, Lane gave a tour of the still uncompleted building.

"We were all jealous of his office," she said, "because he had a view of the mountain."

Rebecca Ellis graduated from the Austine School, and today is a student at the New England School of Photography in Boston. Ellis said she will "never forget how he went out of his way to welcome me. He was a tall man, and I was a little girl, but he made me feel right at home," Ellis said through an interpreter.

"I think in his way, Mr. Lane helped everyone with his support. He made the parents feel comfortable with having their children here," said Grace Ellis, Rebecca's mother, who also works at the Austine School.

Lane was a teacher, a boss, an educator, and a friend. Everyone remembered his humor, and his laugh.

"He loved to laugh," said Virkstis, "Being a teacher is a tough job. He helped us get through a lot of tough times with his sense of humor."

© 2003 Brattleboro Reformer