First deaf graduate of WCU passes away, leaves behind legacy

On Aug. 3, 1946, Jimmie Ray Crawford was born profoundly deaf in the small mountain town of Waynesville. His parents could only guess at the accomplishments their child would achieve.

Last month, Crawford passed away, but his legacy as the man who took to court the major players of the UNC-System and Western Carolina University lives on through his accomplishments. His wife, Pat Crawford, and nephew, Ernie Pitts, spoke exclusively with this journalist about Jimmie Crawford’s amazing impact.

As a graduate student, Crawford went head-to-head against Western Carolina, the WCU chancellor at that time and the UNC-System along with its president and chairman of the board of governors after being denied an interpreter to help him in his graduate classes.

“He wanted to stand and fight for deaf people’s rights to have an interpreter,” said Pat Crawford.

According to an article by the Associated Press, U.S. District Judge Hiram Ward “affirmed a magistrate’s recommendation that Western Carolina University provide an interpreter for [Crawford].” Magistrate Russell Eliason then strongly recommended to WCU that the school either supply “an interpreter or another method of communicating classroom lectures to the student…,” continued the article.

After years of struggling but succeeding during his years of school and now into his graduate school years at WCU, Jimmie Crawford was finally able to understand every word his instructors said in and outside of the classroom in 1977, not even two years after filing the complaint.

Jimmie Crawford was the first profoundly deaf student to graduate from Western Carolina University and its School of Educational Administration and School Personnel. After graduation, he taught for 30 years at the North Carolina School for the Deaf, according to his obituary.

Pat Crawford, who is also deaf, explained that schooling had never been easy for her late husband before his interpreter at Western Carolina. However, he was never one to give up, saying that he was in the top ten of his class in high school.

“His mother was devoted to helping him achieve in life and to have a good education,” she said. “She took him to speech therapy and did the things he needed to accomplish for an education.”

Pat Crawford continued to explain that his mother spent time at night with him in order provide more practice and studying. Also, Jimmie Crawford’s two aunts, who taught in the public school system, also pitched in to make sure their nephew succeeded.

Jimmie Crawford’s decision to take a stand for deaf students led to major change at Western Carolina University and the UNC-System schools. Currently, there are nine hearing impaired students enrolled at Western Carolina, according to a staff member at Disability Services. Whether or not they need an interpreter, they can attend WCU knowing that alum Jimmie Crawford stood up for them and thousands like them in order that any person, disabled or otherwise, may study and learn to the best of their ability.