Occupational Therapy Program at WMU receives $2 million

Western Michigan University has received another record-setting gift.

This time it’s $2 million -- the largest gift to a United States occupational therapy program.

Students and other well wishers, many wearing T-shirts with the motto: "It’s a Great Day to be a Bronco" filled the atrium of WMU’s Health and Human Services building, which was decked out in balloons. Even a gold colored balloon sign reading "Monumental Moment 2011."

To the sounds of bagpipes, the donors and university officials Dr. John Dunn, Provost Timothy Green, and Health and Human Service Dean Earlie Washington, entered the atrium.

And after the announcement of the $2 million donation, cheers of "Fred" from students on one level of the atrium with a response of "Barbara" on another showed the school’s gratitude for the gift.

Saying the time is right for giving, Kalamazoo residents Frederic (Fred) W. Sammons and Dr. Barbara A. Rider told the assembled group that they made the donation at a point when they will get to see it help shape the future of department.

"I wanted to be here for the party," Rider said. "I didn’t want to do it (make a donation) after I’m gone. I don’t know anyone who is able to celebrate after they were gone."

A past chair of WMU’s Department of Occupational Therapy, Rider warned the many occupational therapy students in the audience that the work "gets in your blood" and ultimately all work becomes occupational therapy.

Rider also made it clear the gift was in part a gift to the larger Kalamazoo community.

"Kalamazoo is an extraordinary community," Rider said. "Theater, music, the symphony are all here. But as an occupational therapist, in particular, one of things I love about Kalamazoo is that it’s a community with a big heart. When it sees children living in poverty it creates an effort to address that. There are a large number of people this community cares for.  I love occupational therapy, the university and this community."

Rider is professor emerita and past chair of WMU's Department of Occupational Therapy.  She received her doctorate in educational administration from the University of Michigan. Rider is well known and respected as a researcher, teacher and consultant. She is widely recognized for her pioneering research in developmental reflexes. She currently chairs the board of the Kalamazoo County Department of Human Services.

Her husband, Frederic Sammons, said he believes the gift will be the first of many given to the school of occupational therapy over the next 10 years as the school started in 1922 moves toward its 100 year celebration. (In 1939, WMU's occupational therapy program was one of the first five such programs in the nation to be accredited.)

"Barbara and I decided it was the right time to do this," Sammons said. "It was time to put the metal to the petal and make something happen."

The $2 million will fund be divided in three ways:

• $1.5 million for the Frederic W. Sammons Endowed Chair in Occupational Therapy;

• $250,000 for innovative projects in the Department of Occupational Therapy such as development of the Open Journal of Occupational Therapy, to be the first open-access, online journal in the profession to publish peer-reviewed articles that focus on applied research, practice and education; and

•  $250,000 for the Barbara A. Rider Endowed Distinguished Professorship in Occupational Therapy.

Dunn called the couple's gift an investment in the future of their profession and "a wonderful tribute to our program from two people who know this discipline better than anyone."

Sammons is the founder of Sammons Preston Inc., the largest, worldwide distributor of rehabilitation equipment and supplies. The company he founded eventually grew into a multimillion dollar business and is now a part of Patterson Medical Inc.

Sammons earned his occupational therapist degree at Virginia Commonwealth University on the GI Bill and holds an honorary doctoral degree in public service from WMU. His first job was at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he became director in 1957.

He told the audience his business started with shoe horns and button hooks to assist therapists as they helped others. He described his devices as durable, strong, inexpensive and "not fancy."

"I had the market to myself for 20 years," Sammons said.

In the early years of the business, there were 35 schools in the country training occupational therapists. Over time that grew to 300 schools. "My market kept growing and growing. Demand kept growing. The company grew rapidly year after year."

He joked that he told people he smiled so much because he had to go to the bank so often.

"Our bottom line is this is the time to be doing what we are doing and we are so happy to be part of this. I consider that with this gift I am paying it forward and paying it back for my good fortune."

Kathy Jennings edits Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos for WMU by Mike Lanka

Students lining the stairs all the way to top cheer Dr. Barbara Rider and Frederic Sammons for their generosity.

Department of Occupational Therapy Chair Joseph Pellerito, Frederic Sammons, WMU President John M. Dunn, Dr. Barbara Rider, Health and Human Services Dean Earlie Washington and Provost Timothy Greene at the celebration of the $2 million gift to WMU's occupational therapy program.

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