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December 17, 2004

Abaravich was pioneer for the deaf

From: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - Milwaukee,WI,USA - Dec 17, 2004

After losing hearing at a young age, she fought for deaf rights


Margaret Abaravich, who lost her hearing as a young child in Milwaukee and went on to become a trailblazing advocate for the deaf, kept fighting for her rights up to her death Wednesday of heart failure. She was 85.

Just a few weeks earlier, the retirement community in Riverside, Calif., where she lived had informed her that because she was using a wheelchair and scooter, she would have to sit in a separate area at meals - away from the table she usually shared with a group of deaf friends.

"She did a sit-in and she won," said her daughter, Margaret Atwell, who is vice president of California State University, Fullerton. "She would go right down to the table where she wanted to sit with her friends.

"Eventually, they just said, 'Sit wherever you want to sit.' "

The spirit of activism was something she shared with her husband, Vincent Abaravich, who also was deaf. They were married for more than 50 years, until his death in 1997. Both were active in the National Association of the Deaf, and helped bring about changes that improved life for the deaf in Milwaukee.

Margaret Abaravich never bemoaned her disability, but rather set about leading a life of utter independence.

"My mother was the most unhandicapped person you ever met in your life," Atwell said.

"Margaret was never a person to say, 'Why did it happen to me?' " said Abaravich's younger sister, Elizabeth Valusek. "In fact, all her life she was cheerful and outgoing and so determined."

She was born Feb. 15, 1919, into a prominent Milwaukee family, the McCormacks. Margaret McCormack's father, James, had been the county's clerk of courts, a post her brother Francis would one day occupy. Two other brothers, Joseph and Paul McCormack, became county treasurers. One cousin, William O'Donnell, became county executive and another cousin, Father Edward O'Donnell, served as president of Marquette University.

Margaret McCormack lost her hearing at the age of 9 after suffering spinal meningitis. She went on to attend the Paul Binner School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, where she was taught lip-reading. At the time, the school did not use sign language, Valusek said.

In 1938, she graduated from Lincoln High School, finishing in the top 10% of her class, Valusek said.

For a period during World War II, she worked at Cutler-Hammer, a Milwaukee company that made electrical outlets. At first, when she applied to Cutler-Hammer, "she was turned down," Valusek said. But she returned to the company every day until she was hired.

She met her future husband while out walking her dog one day. Vincent Abaravich, an engineering student at Marquette, stooped to pet the dog. He was also deaf, having lost his hearing at the age of 8.

The couple married at Gesu Church on Nov. 11, 1944.

They had three children - Patric, Vincent and Margaret - and Margaret Abaravich settled into life as a stay-at-home mother.

"She was my No. 1 cheerleader," recalled Atwell. "She was always interested in what we were doing and wanted us to succeed."

Abaravich herself went back to school and received a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at the age of 61. An avid reader and a fan of mysteries, she majored in English Literature.

Abaravich became a passionate advocate for the deaf, convincing the police and fire departments and local hospitals to install special telecommunications devices for the deaf. She also became a founding member of the Kelly Center in Cudahy, a club where deaf adults could gather and socialize.

She was an officer in many organizations, including the International Catholic Deaf Association, the National Association of the Deaf and the Wisconsin Association of the Deaf.

Abaravich also practiced needlecraft and ceramics and enjoyed swimming.

She and her husband left Milwaukee for California in 1997 after he suffered a stroke. Even in her later years she remained fiercely independent.

"My mom was really my idol, especially in the last few years," Atwell said. "I would watch her every day. I was amazed at how positive she was. Nothing would get her down. Nothing would get in her way."

Besides her daughter and sister, Abaravich is survived by two sons: Patric Abaravich of Los Angeles and Vincent Barr of Dallas. Services will be this week in California.

From the Dec. 17, 2004, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

© Copyright 2004, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved.