Meeting Alvin Baird

In 2000, I met a couple in their early 80s who were interested in the work I was doing at James Madison University. Alvin Baird had a history of attention and learning problems and was unaware of the work that had been conducted in this field. Both Alvin and his wife Nancy were excited about the treatment development research we were doing and wanted to participate. They visited campus, attended parent training meetings at local schools, and regularly asked about our latest projects. In addition, they made a donation to the university to provide initial funding for the Alvin V. Baird Attention & Learning Disabilities Center. At the time, this was the largest donation the university had ever received.

Personal Experience as Motivation

From this shared passion to make a difference in the lives of children with emotional, behavioral, and learning problems grew a meaningful collaboration and friendship. Alvin grew up in the first half of the 20th century in an affluent family with high expectations. He recounted a youth of financial privilege that was overshadowed by academic frustration. Despite access to private boarding schools and well-trained teachers, Alvin’s learning disabilities caused great struggle and family disappointment. He told us that in his time, children with the types of problems he had did not benefit from the existence of terms such as “learning disability” or “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”; instead, the most frequently used labels for them were “stupid” and “lazy.” Even in his 80s, his voice resonated with a deep disgust and frustration about his struggles with these problems. However, instead of complaining or wallowing in the unfairness of his life, Alvin used these experiences as motivation for helping other youth struggling with learning disabilities.

I distinctly remember the first time Alvin saw the building that housed our new center. Although it was simply an old house the university had purchased and converted into office space, it served as a home base for the center that bore his name. The first week we moved in, I took Alvin to dinner to celebrate. After dinner, I drove him to our offices to show him the “new center.” It was dark by the time we got there and as I pulled into one of the parking spots, my headlights illuminated the sign that read, “Reserved Parking: Alvin V. Baird ALDC clients only.” Alvin was silent, until in a slow, soft voice he said, “If only my father could see me now.” I do not remember much about the rest of this visit, but Alvin’s statement led me to believe that we were giving something back to this man, and it reminded me of his overwhelming desire to make a meaningful contribution.

Alvin did many things in his lifetime, including traveling the world, obtaining his pilot’s license, publishing a flight journal, and serving in World War II. Nancy was an accomplished historian and had graduated from James Madison University (Madison College at the time) in 1939. But one of their most impressive achievements was the investment of time, money, and passion they provided to so many children and adolescents with attention and learning problems. Despite their busy schedules and declining health, both Alvin and Nancy made a point of being actively involved in the center until their deaths. I am continually struck by the importance and priority that Alvin placed on his weekly visits to the center. He and Nancy read documents for us and offered revisions, viewed educational videos we created and gave us feedback, and most importantly, they spent time with our students. Alvin did not like to miss his time with us and even resisted invitations by family members to move closer to them after Nancy died, in part as a result of his desire to stay involved with the center.

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