Remembering Harry

Each year, around this time, my thoughts often turn to an old friend and colleague.  It happens at this time of year for 2 reasons: the U-M vs. MSU football game, and our annual statewide fall conference.

Harry R. Smith worked for the State of Michigan in Vocational Rehabilitation, and upon retirement, for MARO.  While Harry passed away in 2010, he is remembered for his extraordinary career accomplishments, exhaustive professional service contributions at the local, state, and national levels, and the significant, long-term impact he had on the lives of citizens with disabilities, and those professionals who provide rehabilitation services over the course of 35 years.

Harry was a mentor to me from the beginning.  About mid-morning on my first day, he stuck his head in my office and asked if I’d be interested in learning a little bit about the profession.  Aside from my academic background, my work experience to date at the time had been dedicated to manufacturing management and regulatory compliance – I had limited experience in rehabilitation, and my connection to persons served through MARO member organizations was peripheral, through friends and family members with disabilities.  We walked into the conference room, I sat down and he went to the flip chart – and he proceeded to deliver a 90-minute lecture on the history of vocational rehabilitation in this country.  I was fascinated by the story, the association’s connection to it, and the amazing wealth of institutional knowledge within this blustery old fellow. I still have my notes.

We were equally passionate supporters of our respective alma mater’s athletic teams.  The victories, in any sport, of each university were often noted the next day – sometimes in the form of newspaper articles taped to an office door.  But our only annual wager was the U-M / MSU football game.  The loser would be required to make a donation to the opposing school’s public radio or TV station on behalf of the winner.  I never told Harry that, win or lose, I had been a supporter of MSU’s public television station for years, and would write my check during the annual fall pledge drive regardless of the outcome.  But we had a lot of fun with it – although I’m sure he wouldn’t have enjoyed the result of this year’s game as much as I did.

What brings back memories of Harry more than anything is the upcoming fall conference.  He will be remembered for his dedication to quality continuing education experiences for rehabilitation service providers; and the fall conference stands as a tribute to his vision of creating a learning event where all could improve their professional competence in assisting individuals with disabilities to attain a purposeful and valued life.

The fall conference is now known as re:con – the convention of new beginnings.  While it has transformed in both name and format, I’m sure Harry would embrace the vision behind this event: that re:con helps to establish a network of shared values through professional development, resulting in better outcomes for the people we serve.  We come together to learn best practices in the field, that allow us to go back to our own communities and do our job better.  But we also make meaningful connections – with professionals from other communities, maybe even different sectors of service provision. And through those connections we realize we share the same mission; and maybe we can better leverage the power of those collective resources, and work together to better support the goals and aspirations of differently abled individuals throughout Michigan.