The Orton-Gillingham (and dyslexia) world has lost a legend

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The Orton-Gillingham (and dyslexia) world has lost a legend
by Grace Sharma
(Posted on my Facebook page, February 2, 2021)

I don’t think there was a day in the last 4 years that I didn’t think of, email, text, call or receive some form of communication from Karen Leopold. She was my Fellow, mentor, and in 4 short years became a large part of my family. She took me on as my secondary Fellow near the end of my Certified training and became my primary Fellow as I became a Fellow-in-Training.

She paired me with Diane Mayer, who has become my second half in my OG world, because she “just had a feeling the two of us would hit it off.” She was trained by Diana Hanbury King, who was observed by Anna Gillingham herself, so she placed Diane Mayer and me (and all her other trainees) 2 degrees away from the origination of the Orton-Gillingham Approach itself. Diana Hanbury King was a legend in the field, but she wasn’t Karen Leopold (at least not to me).

Karen Leopold was a force unto herself. She led the charge through various committee and board positions in the Orton-Gillingham Academy and the Rocky Mountain Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. We always tried to figure out how she managed to do all that she did. Somehow, she trained more people, lead more Fellows-in-Trainings, and brought together a cohort of Fellows in a way no one else in our world did. I’m sure she stepped on toes at times, but I think all in the field always still held her in utmost respect.

I recently started reading a book with a student of mine that loves baseball called The Hero Two Doors Down. Based on a true story, it recounts how a young boy whose biggest hero was then-rookie Jackie Robinson, forms an unlikely bond with Jackie when he moves 2 doors down from him. Jackie takes an interest in this boy and mentors him in how to deal with the challenges of growing up while at the same time dealing with the challenges of being at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. I realized a few weeks ago, that I too had this unique experience. Somehow, I had my own hero take me under her wing and guide me through so much as I too grew up these last few years.

I remember the first year I had Karen Leopold as my direct Fellow. I had moved to California and was having dinner with a group of colleagues from Ohio I hadn’t seen in a year at a conference. As we sat there, the guy next to me excitedly told the table, “you guys, I shook her hand…I shook Karen Leopold’s hand after I watched her presentation!” It was like he had just been to an Elvis concert and managed to shake Elvis’ hand. Amused by his reaction, I nonchalantly asked if he had heard who my new Fellow was since I had moved. He hadn’t. When I told him that not only was Karen Leopold my Fellow, but that I had gone to her home the previous summer to discuss my goals in OG his eyes grew big. Then I topped that with the fact that earlier in the conference there had been a photobooth that she and 3 of us Fellows-In-Training had jumped in and that I, Grace Sharma, had sat on THE Karen Leopold’s lap for the photo…his jaw hit the table.

Yet as much as she inspired awe in others, she never seemed to cast a shadow that made you feel small. She lifted you up and became a lioness who protected you if someone tried to attack. She let you know when you made mistakes or had gone rogue, but then dusted you off, and placed you back on your path towards your goal. She inspired “Karen-isms” that Diane and I use frequently like “don’t muck it up.” And in one training, her direct way of saying “no” when something was wrong became hash-tagged as you have been “Leo-told.”

Originally from the East Coast, one of her goals was to bring Orton-Gillingham out west. On Sunday night, January 31st, I finished a full draft of my Fellow Application and was so excited to tell her on Monday that I was only a few revisions away from joining her other recent Fellows on the West Coast, Lynn Lamping in Oregon, and Nancy Redding in California. I almost called her Sunday night in my excitement, but instead waited because I had a video call with her scheduled for 1:00 pm on Monday, February 1st, a call she never got to join. I wanted to see her reaction when I proudly offered up my accomplishment to join her in the world of official Fellows. I knew what her reaction would be, probably a New York accented “aww, I knew you would do it” or a giddy “woo-hoo.” That’s all you needed to know you had done well in Karen’s world, those few words were worth far more than their weight in gold.

While I know my pain and grief can’t in any way match that of her family’s in the wake of this unexpected loss, I never realized how big of an impact someone can make in your life in a few short years. My mentor, my den-mother, and my Fellow, Karen Leopold has died and I don’t think anything could have prepared me for this day to come so soon. Diana Hanbury King lived to be 90, and that’s what everyone expected of Karen Leopold too. We were supposed to have 20 more years of being “Leo-told,” reigned in when needed, but then lovingly dusted off and directed down the best path again.

Karen, I will forever hear your voice in my ear guiding me, and when presented with a choice I will often ask myself “what would Karen do?” I’ve gone through all the stages of grief within less than a day of losing you, all of them except acceptance. It’s too surreal to think that someone who was such a large presence on so many fronts could be gone. Your Happy FITs and Jolly Fellows will work together to try to carry on your legacy and goals. And I, Grace Sharma, the one you lovingly told many “you have to meet her, she’s a hoot!” will continue to work again as your “Social Director” in bringing together your tribe of OG leaders and mentees once we are able to meet again in person. I just wish, with every fiber of my being, that you could join us again too.

And Karen, I know if you are reading this, there is likely a complex sentence somewhere that I missed a comma in. I promise I ran it through two grammar checkers just for you.

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