Remembering a pioneering American Sign Language interpreter, Northeastern professor

(Boston, MA 10/23/14) Northeastern University Facilities Employees, Thursday, October 23, 2014 (Staff Photo by Faith Ninivaggi)

Dennis Cokely, director of Northeastern’s American Sign Language program, whose varied and tireless work for the Deaf community has opened access among the hard of hearing, will be remembered for his generosity, depth of knowledge, and sense of caring. He died this month, just shy of his 72nd birthday.

“He was a wonderful man, said Alma Bournazian, who is Deaf and worked in the ASL program with Cokely.  

“He had a Deaf heart,” she said, using the word not to indicate that Cokely was physically deaf but rather that he embraced the unique cultural qualities of the Deaf community.

“He was always just there, donating, supporting, working in the Deaf community,” she said.

Cokely came to Northeastern in 1996 and helped build the curriculum for its ASL program.

“Dennis was an extraordinarily generous colleague, teacher, and mentor, a tireless advocate for the deaf and for people with different abilities, a highly accomplished scholar, and an exceptional university citizen,” said Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Laurie Achin, visiting lecturer in American Sign Language, echoed Bournazian and Poiger.

“Dennis was a giant of a human being with a huge heart for the Deaf- and interpreting communities,” she said. “He took the time to understand and provide his support to the communities throughout his long career. For me on a personal note, he was someone who believed and gave me a chance to believe in myself and grow. I will forever be grateful that I had the time and the opportunity to work with him and get to know him.”  

Cokely’s contribution to the field of sign language interpretation is vast. He wrote dozens of articles and five textbooks on American Sign Language, widely known in the field as “The Green Books.” He co-founded, Sign Media, Inc., which helped standardize what had sometimes been the haphazard world of ASL interpreter training.

Before coming to Northeastern, Cokely worked for 15 years at Gallaudet University—the world’s foremost school for the deaf and hard of hearing. It was there that he met Bournazian who was a student at the time. When Bournazian became a teacher at Gallaudet, Cokely mentored her.

Between 1983 and 1987, Cokely served as president of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and was instrumental in revising and updating its certification and training process. In 1985, he served as director of a project funded by the Canadian government to develop a curriculum for interpreter education programs, which went on to become the model for such programs globally.

In 2005, he won the Outstanding Interpreter Educator Award from the Massachusetts Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Most recently, Cokely established the Center for Atypical Language Interpreting at Northeastern with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Rehabilitation Services Administration to address the demand for interpreters with specialized skills to serve people who use atypical sign language.

Dennis was an extraordinarily generous colleague, teacher, and mentor, a tireless advocate for the deaf and for people with different abilities, a highly accomplished scholar, and an exceptional university citizen.

Uta Poiger, Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanites

He volunteered in whatever way he could find, Bournazian said.

“He was great in courts as an interpreter for a deaf witness, and he would go interpret for the deaf in jails so they could get a phone call just like any hearing person would,” she said.

Sign language interpretation wasn’t always Cokely’s focus, though. Bournazian said that when he was young, Cokely wanted to be a preacher. At seminary school, “he met a deaf person and fell in love with the language,” she said.

Cokely immersed himself in the culture, learning as much as he could. And it showed.

“No matter the question, he always had the answer right away,” Bournazian said. “I had trouble filling out my first tax form, and he helped me. When I had questions about the best way to teach, I went to him. I went to him for everything, and he always had the answer right away.”

Cokely won Northeastern’s university-wide Excellence in Teaching Award in 2002, and his signature classes, including “Deaf People in Society” drew hundreds of students.

Bournazian recalled his warm, teasing sense of humor as well, saying that sometimes Cokely could be caught adding bunny ears behind her head in photos.

“He was just a good man,” she said. “Oh my. He was just brilliant. He cared. I’m really going to miss him.”

Calling hours will be held Friday, Aug. 24, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Douglass Funeral Home on 51 Worthen Road in Lexington, Massachusetts. The family cordially invites relatives and friends. In lieu of flowers, donations in Cokely’s memory may be made to The Learning Center for the Deaf, on 848 Central St. in Framingham, Massachusetts.

The Department of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies and the College of Social Science and Humanities plan to hold a memorial service on campus in the fall.