Remembering Denise Decker
16 January 2021
My many connections and friendship with Denise Decker, all through AAUW, the American Association of University Women, began decades ago and occurred on the local, state, regional, national, and international levels. They ranged from being invited guests and speaking at each other’s local branches to serving together as delegates to the International Federation of University Women Conference in Yokohama in 1995. She traveled to Japan without her dog, matter-of-factly noting that some countries do not welcome service animals.
As I gratefully recall my admiration and affection for Denise, two short stories insist on being shared. Both say so much about her very essence:
In the early 1990s, my daughter, Lia, now a veterinarian, then still studying at Cornell University, decided to raise guide-dog puppies. She accepted the intensive responsibility, and the heartbreak of having to part, all too soon, with her warm fuzzy prodigies. And she wanted to do it right, even reading up on orientation and mobility techniques used by sightless persons. I told her about my friend Denise’s history and expertise with guide dogs. I told Denise about my daughter’s commitment and desire to ensure a smooth transition from her basic training to the puppy’s useful future. Denise suggested we three have dinner together. We met downtown. Lia remembers still how excited she was to meet my friend, Denise’s “warm and enthusiastic greeting,” and how skillfully she and Autumn led us into, onto, and out of the Metro and on to a restaurant some blocks distant. Lia closely observed and asked a flood of questions. Denise generously responded to each and, more important, calmly, confidently showed how life is done. When they met again many years later, Lia was thrilled to be remembered just as cordially and appreciatively as before.
About my second story, I confess to making up many now-forgotten details, but the salient parts remain crystal clear in my mind. At some point during my decade as an AAUW national board member, the president of AAUW New Jersey, like me also a Dianne, contacted me, seeking a partner with whom she could present a workshop on membership recruitment at a national convention. I recommended Denise Decker. I explained that AAUW’s willingness to grant Denise a fellowship to complete her PhD in linguistics at the Sorbonne, when other funding sources would not support a blind person—and, especially, AAUW’s belief in her—had inspired her life-long dedication to our organization; that her story would be an inspirational testimonial to potential members. Dianne, an energetic extrovert, was silent, then asked, “Is she dynamic?” From her tone, I sensed this was a deal-breaker question. I hesitated, needing to be truthful. “No, probably not in the way I think you mean dynamic,” I admitted, “but she will have the entire room in the palm of her hand within a few sentences.” Dianne agreed to work with her. At the time of the workshop I had other responsibilities but when I entered the room toward the end of the session, Denise was in front speaking, with doubtful Dianne standing off to the side. When she saw me, her face lit up with a triumphant “you-were-right” smile. Oh, yes, Denise was dynamic, in her own quiet, effective way.