Remembering Polly Alexander
NASP’s Founding President
By Tom Fagan
(Photo courtesy of Tom Fagan)
Pauline Jane (Johnson) Alexander was born on April 15, 1927 in Detroit, Michigan, and died peacefully in her sleep on February 23, 2013 in Savannah, Georgia after battling Alzheimer's for many years. Her parents were Roy Johnson, an executive with a pharmaceutical company, and Edith Shore Johnson, a housewife. She was raised in the Detroit area. A long-time resident of Worthington, Ohio, Polly (as she preferred to be known) was a dynamic force in the founding of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). It was during her presidency (1967–1968) of the Ohio School Psychologists Association (OSPA) that an organizational meeting was held in Columbus, OH in 1968 that would lead to the official founding of NASP in St. Louis, MO in March 1969 (Fagan, 1993, 2008). Polly chaired the Columbus invitational conference and the organizational meeting in St. Louis, and served as NASP's first president (1969–1970) and convention chair for the Second Annual Convention at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC.
Education and Employment
Polly graduated from Edwin Denby High School (Detroit, MI) in 1946. She attended Wayne State University and then, at the advice of a professor, attended and earned the BA degree in psychology in 1951 from Antioch College (Yellow Springs, OH). She earned her Master of Arts degree in pupil personnel from Ohio State University in 1953 and received her Ohio school psychology certificate in the same year. With additional training at Ohio State University, she received her permanent school psychology certificate in 1965 and her supervisory certificate in 1970. She was also licensed for private practice by the State of Ohio Board of Psychology since 1973.
Her employment included school psychologist for the Ohio State School for the Blind and Ohio School for the Deaf (1953–1959) and the Franklin County (OH) board of education (1960–1969). She then was employed as project coordinator for the Title VI Special Education Planning Project for the Metropolitan Cooperative Educational Council. Her final school psychologist position was with the Delaware (OH) City Schools from 1970 until her retirement in 1983. She also had a private practice since 1959. According to her obituary, Polly was a cofounder of Support for Talented Students, published numerous articles, and produced two television series for WOSUTV in the 1960s to help teachers deal with mental health and learning disorder issues (“Mental Health TV Series,” 1967).
Affiliations and Awards
Polly held several professional affiliations including NASP, OSPA, School Psychologists of Central Ohio (president, 1966–1967), Franklin County Mental Health Association (chair of its education committee, 1961–1968), Council for Exceptional Children, Ohio Psychological Association, and the Ohio State Department of Education's advisory council (1968–1970). She was chosen to be among the 322 persons participating in the Olympia Conference in November 1981. For her outstanding contributions and service, she was granted in 1975 Honorary Life Membership in NASP, and was a recipient of the Charles Huelsman Award (1977) and OSPA's Clyde Bartlett Award (1985). In 2002, she received NASP's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Pauline Alexander addresses the 1970 NASP convention at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC. (Photo courtesy of Tom Fagan)
Polly addressed the opening general session of the 25th anniversary convention (April 13–17, 1993) at the Washington, DC Hilton. As part of the Silver Anniversary Welcome Group, she extended an official welcome to the more than 2,600 persons in attendance. When she registered for the convention, she remarked that she was still going strong and hoped to be invited to open the 50th convention in 2018. Polly had been president of OSPA in its 25th year in 1967–1968.
In an autobiography prepared for NASP in April 1993, she provided the following recollection (Alexander, 1993):
While at the Franklin County Schools, I went to my first APA convention in Philadelphia. That was the year and time that Martin Luther King led the civil rights march on Washington and gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. From that amazing week, I decided that as a school psychologist, I had a dream that we would someday have a voice and be validated as a legitimate profession.
Polly worked with leaders in Ohio and several other states to move NASP from an idea to a dream and to a major success in the recognition of school psychology as a field and of the importance of nondoctoral practitioners. In a letter to John Austin following the Spring Hill Symposium on the Future of Psychology in the Schools (June 4–8, 1980), Polly said:
My contract indicates that I have served 27 years in the schools and, believe it or not, I still look forward to starting a new year. I also continue to believe that school psychology is a viable profession, with a well established role and function, and worthy of respect both within and without our ranks (personal correspondence from Pauline Alexander to John Austin, September 8, 1981).
In 1983, Polly had written to me that “the archives of NASP are at Akron University.” An inquiry to the Archives of the History of American Psychology (now The Center for the History of Psychology) in 1991 revealed that correspondence to or from Pauline Alexander existed in four different archival collections (personal correspondence from Sharon Ochsenhirt to Tom Fagan, April 17, 1991). Persons studying Pauline's life may wish to search those files for additional information. However, my inquiry did not reveal any archival collection specifically in the name of NASP.
Alex Thomas (NASP president 1986–1987, 1998–1999) recalled introducing a motion to the NASP Delegate Assembly, at the encouragement of Polly, that led to the founding of the NASP Children's Fund. “Without her initial advocacy, insistence, and spirit, the Children's Fund or some type of NASP 501(c)(3) would likely have been created years later.” John Guidubaldi (president 1981–1982) recalled Polly as
… a lively spirit, channeled by devotion and gifted with the vision of what could be. She knew our potential before we did, and she moved us to start the long trek. Along with Mike Chrin, Bill Farling, Jim Agner, John Austin, Jerry Green, and many others, she set a tone of unpretentious effective leadership that characterized NASP for many years to come.
Stuart Hart (president 1982–1983) recalled, “Pathfinders of good will and vision are too few. We're thankful Pauline, among that few, was with us and championed the best interests of children through our profession.” Fred Dornback (president 1973–1974) recalled:
I was privileged to work with Polly from day one of NASP. I will also remember her as strong willed, high energy—and her dedication. She was one of the strongest forces in the creation of NASP and guiding it thorough the formative years. She believed in NASP and dedicated herself to those of us working with her. She had more energy and stamina than several of us together.
Deborah Crockett (president 1997–1998), though not personally knowing Polly, said, “Her spirit and dedication was a part of the catalyst for my involvement in NASP.”
Nadine Block, governmental liaison for OSPA for 13 years and a former regional director and cochair of legislation for NASP, recalled:
I knew Polly for at least 30 years. She was a can-do person who seized opportunities and made things happen. If you were her friend, you were probably going to be involved! One of the things we worked on together was Support for Talented Students.
Support for Talented Students began in 1983 to provide scholarships for special opportunities outside of the regular school day for gifted and talented children whose parents could not afford them. Polly was a school psychologist and Carolyn Fleming was a gifted coordinator in Delaware City Schools. They would come across children whose needs could not be met by existing school programs and found friends and organizations to sponsor them for music and art instruction, science and math enrichment, drama workshops, and other educational programs outside of schools. To extend the program outside of Delaware City Schools, serve more children, and make contributions tax-deductible, they and a couple of friends (I was one of them) began Support for Talented Students (STS), a 501(c) 3 organization. School psychologists, counselors, and gifted coordinators were trained in the grant procedures and a steady stream of applicants began seeking scholarships. Some have become professional musicians, artists, and actors. Many have gone on to academic success.
Polly was the driver in those early years, ever optimistic that the organization would be successful and that many children would benefit from its work. Many children have benefited from Polly's work. Over a quarter of a million Ohio children have been served by STS since 1983. (personal correspondence to Tom Fagan, April 15, 2013)
Bill Farling, NASP's executive secretary (1970–1973), worked closely with Polly both in OSPA and NASP:
Polly was an intelligent, hard working, energetic, and tireless person, which is well demonstrated by all her activities and achievements throughout her career in school psychology. As I think of her, one feature stands out in my mind. Above all she was a people person in every sense of the word. She was vivacious, outgoing, gracious, witty, and always had a positive attitude. Her personality was as big as a ballroom. She absolutely loved being with people. Polly was not one to sit in her hotel room watching television. At every conference, meeting, or convention, she was up early and up late, seldom returning to her room. She would walk around the place, sit in the lobby, and approach anyone or any group and immediately relate to them. Once at a NASP convention in Las Vegas, my wife and I went down to the lobby to enjoy a beverage before leaving for a night on the town. There was Polly with a big greeting for us, and herself ready for whatever social activity the evening might bring. Out the three of us went, picking up additional persons as we continued on. It was a night to remember. We all had the greatest time with Polly leading us on. Her sheer joy in being with others was infectious and one always left her feeling uplifted and delighted. What happy memories! (personal correspondence to Tom Fagan, April 16, 2013)
Polly's Presidential Messages
Pauline Alexander’s presidential photo, circa early 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Tom Fagan)
In her president's message following the March, 1969 St. Louis convention, Polly emphatically announced:
NASP is now a fact! As we pass from the planning-to-become stage into the formative years of our organization, there is much to be done. The long debate in our business meetings was viewed by many of us as a wholesome sign of personal involvement, which the members of the organization intend to uphold. This kind of viable, active, and concerned membership will ensure real representation of our profession at the national level (Alexander, 1969, p. 1)…. I can't help but make one personal observation after talking, for the first time in my life, with many school psychologists from across the country. We have much in common as a group, and much to learn from each other. (Alexander, 1969, p. 4)
Later in her presidency, Polly reported growth in NASP membership to 1,314, the founding of state associations in Iowa and West Virginia, a grant from the U.S. Office of Education ($9,500) to conduct a national survey of school psychologists in the United States (Farling & Hoedt, 1971), an increasing number of states having representatives in the NASP Delegate Assembly, and the selection of a symbol for NASP. “The fact that we have, indeed, established a national identity during the first year of our existence can serve to underscore the values derived from our historic action in St. Louis” (Alexander, 1970, p. 8).
Pauline Alexander was the first person to be honored at the Annual Past Presidents Roast on March 18, 1982 during the NASP convention in Toronto. Many of the NASP old timers who are no longer with us had fond memories of those early years working with her. She was indeed part of the leadership in the early years that helped NASP become an “organization many people said would never even get off the ground” (Farling & Agner, 1979, p. 152).
A memorial tribute to Polly was conducted during the OSPA convention in April 2013. A celebration of her life will be held on June 29th, 2013 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus (OH), 93 West Weisheimer Rd., 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Plans are being made for a celebration of Polly Alexander during the 2014 NASP convention in Washington, DC. It may be done in conjunction with the Annual Past Presidents Roast. Polly was preceded in death by her husband Rod Alexander, whom she married in 1950. She is survived by a daughter Lesley Gady (Steve); three sons, Michael (Mary Barbara), Scott (Christine), and Casey (Brenda); and eight grandchildren. Her son Michael, a college president, believed that Polly would want to be remembered as a mentor to many others who became psychologists, an initiator and innovator, and a dedicated practitioner who did the work of a school psychologist and family therapy counselor into her mid-70s. The family requests that contributions in her honor be made to The Alexander Family Endowment for Faculty Development, Antioch College, One Morgan Place, Yellow Springs, OH 45387.
Alexander, P. (1969, May). Message from the president. National Association of School Psychologists Newsletter, 1(1), 1, 4.
Alexander, P. J. (1970, Winter). Message from the president. National Association of School Psychologists Newsletter, 2(1), 8.
Alexander, P. (1993, April 7). Bio for NASP, Pauline J. Alexander. Unpublished. Available from Tom Fagan.
Fagan, T. K. (1993). Separate but equal: School psychology's search for organizational identity. Journal of School Psychology, 31, 3–90.
Fagan, T. K. (2008). The 1968 National Invitational Conference of School Psychologists: Is this the 41st anniversary of NASP? Communiqué, 37(4), 1, 26–27.
Farling, W. H., & Agner, J. (1979). History of the National Association of School Psychologists: The first decade. School Psychology Digest, 8(2), 140–152.
Farling, W. H., & Hoedt, K. C. (1971). National survey of school psychologists. Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists. Mental Health TV Series. (1967, Fall). The School Psychologist (OSPA newsletter), 12(1), 6.
Tom Fagan is a professor of psychology and director of the school psychology program at the University of Memphis, TN. He is also the NASP historian. Contact him at email@example.com.