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A Tribute to Hal Herber

 | Jun 21, 2012

Harold L. Herber, or Hal, as most of the reading world knew him, passed away on June 6, 2012. A principled man, first-class teacher, mentor to many, and scholar extraordinaire, Hal was (and remains) a guiding force in the lives of his former graduate students.

Hal HerberSoon after he completed his doctorate at Boston University, he moved to Syracuse University in 1963 where he initiated a program of research that focused on developing ways to teach high school students how to comprehend complex texts. With the publication of his book, Teaching Reading in Content Areas in 1970, the reading field—college instructors, secondary school teachers, and reading specialists—had for the first time a principled guide to teaching reading processes and subject matter content simultaneously in all disciplines. 

Herber was a member of the International Reading Association (IRA) for over 45 years and served on the IRA Board of Directors. In 1984, he was the second recipient of the IRA Outstanding Teacher Educator in Reading Award (now called the IRA Jerry Johns Outstanding Teacher Educator in Reading Award). He was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame in 1987, and he received the IRA William S. Gray Citation of Merit in 1989. 

From 1968 to 1973, Hal and a Syracuse University colleague, Margaret J. Early, co-edited the Journal of Reading, which was renamed the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. In addition to a lifetime of scholarly writing that included a second edition of Teaching Reading in Content Areas (1978), Hal collaborated with his beloved wife and colleague, Joan Nelson Herber, in directing the federally funded Network of Secondary School Demonstration Centers for Teaching Reading in Content Areas. Tank & TiffanyLater on, to celebrate their retirement years with their two Golden Retrievers, Hal and Joan collaborated on a book published under the title, Tank and Tiffany…A Love Story. In it, the compassion, humor, and insightfulness that marked Hal’s life as a teacher, researcher, and mentor played out in recognizable and predictable ways. 

Teacher of Adolescents 

Rosary Lalik recollects, “Hal was one of the most gifted teachers I had ever seen work with middle and high school students. His abiding faith in the capacity of all kids showed in how he listened to what they had to say, not because listening was a strategy for teaching them, but because he was profoundly interested in each kid and the sparks of brilliance he knew would be ignited if someone only opened a mindful space for their thoughts. All of us—teachers, administrators, colleagues—had enormous potential in Hal's eyes, and his trust and guidance inspired us to strive to realize that potential. I don't want you to think that I didn't notice Hal's wit and humor. We laughed often and fully as we journeyed together. Though Hal was generous with his time and energy with everyone who came within his care, it was Dr. Joan Nelson Herber, his closest colleague, friend, and confidant who remained at his side and gave him inspiration, joy, and abiding love.” 

Teacher of Teachers 

Kathy Hinchman, professor in the Reading and Language Arts Center at  Syracuse University,  shares, “Hal, or Professor Herber as we undergraduates addressed him, was my most important methods teacher. Each of his classes involved us in walking through use of recommended strategies with many practical examples. He read our papers, lesson plans, and journal entries with 100% engagement, always honing in on our greatest questions, worries, and ideas not carefully conceived. He positioned us on the cutting edge with regard to engaging students, teaching reading comprehension, developing independence, and organizing instruction—concepts that remain central today. He was an outstanding teacher of all teachers—what a privilege it is to have had him in my teaching life.” 

Teacher of Teacher Educators

Judie Thelen, professor emeritus at Frostburg State University (University System of Maryland) and Past-President of IRA (1991-1992), reminisces, "My first recollection of Hal Herber was of the day he arrived on campus in 1963. My friend, the late Ruby Martin, and I watched from the Reading and Language Arts Center as all 6’ plus slowly emerged from his Volkswagen with MA plates. Ruby was a doctoral student, and I was finishing my master’s program. We both signed up for one of his first courses and found it most refreshing. I returned to Syracuse each summer to take courses toward my next degree. In 1967 I received a phone call from Dr. Herber inviting me to participate in a three-year, classroom-centered research project sponsored by the US Office of Education to study reading improvement in the content areas in secondary schools. Hal saw something in me that others had not looked quite far enough to find. On June 6, 1970, he presented me with my degree and the keys to my future career as a teacher educator. I will never forget him. His legacy lives on through me and through many, many others who were inspired by his teaching, research, and writing." 

Researcher

Donna Alvermann, distinguished research professor in the Language and Literacy Education department at the University of Georgia, remembers, “Hal taught me an invaluable lesson about conducting research, and he did so within weeks of my first semester as a doctoral student at Syracuse University. Bill Sheldon, then head of Reading and Language Arts, assigned me as Hal’s graduate assistant. In our first meeting about the assistantship, Hal pointed to ten or so dissertations on his shelf that an earlier cadre of doctoral students had completed as part of his research program on secondary reading instruction. Hal said that he’d like me to read each one carefully, take notes, and then discuss the notes with him. He wisely insisted that to know one’s lineage and the work of those who have researched on a particular topic in the past is the first step a new doctoral student needs to take. Like so much of what Hal modeled as a scholar, this lesson lives on as a cogent reminder.” 

Mentor 

Mark Conley, professor of teacher education at the University of Memphis, recalls, “I remember Hal saying how he picked grad students not just by how bright they are, but also because of something special or quirky about each of them. He paid attention and listened, as if he were a student learning about who we are. There are also the enduring lessons, about learning from practice and practitioners, honoring history and those who came before, and the stress to try to make a real difference. Through him, I also got to know other SU doctoral students, which is easy to take for granted when they are just part of your life. I know we all developed shared values through our work with Hal and each other and, now that I have been at four universities, I have come to really appreciate those values. What we have is extraordinarily rare in academia and Hal, in his subtle way (which ironically belied his vivid personality) laid the foundation. I am going to miss him, but I am awfully grateful that I had him in my life.” 

Rich Vacca, professor emeritus from Kent State University and Past-President of IRA, adds, “Hal Herber was more of a father-figure to me than a mentor, colleague, and role model. I was 23 years old when I began my doctoral studies at Syracuse University.  I knew very little about the field of reading and felt totally unprepared for the journey I was about to take. Yet Hal took me under his wing and showed me how to fly. He taught me through example that self-confidence, hard work, and a belief in oneself were the keys to a successful life and career. Whenever I think of Hal, I’m reminded of Dan Fogelberg’s lyrics to the song, The Leader of the Band:  ‘My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man. I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band.’ Thank you, Hal.” 

 

 


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