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Vol 39  No 15
June 7, 2007


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Thursday, May 24, 10 a.m.

Oration honouring Barbara Hopkins


Dr. Barbara Hopkins (L) with Dr. Donald Mackay

Natura abhorret a vacuo. This Latin proverb proclaims that nature abhors a vacuum. The filling of a vacuum creates the lift that enables a jetliner to soar heavenward. Abhorrence of a vacuum may also explain why some people seem compelled to give so much of themselves for the betterment of others. They discover needs and fill them. Like the jetliner, perhaps the volunteer is lifted in the process of filling the void. Before you today is Barbara Hopkins. Watch her carefully! Although she appears to be standing, Barbara Hopkins has filled so many needs that she may take flight at any moment.

Some suggest that Barbara is always in a hurry, but really, she is just a person who learned early in life how to focus her energies. She skipped two grades in school and completed a psychology honours degree at age 19. While Barbara and her husband Bob reared four children, she undertook graduate work in guidance and early childhood development. When her own children were still toddlers, she started a Girl Guide troupe where there was none. In rural British Columbia, she established a cooperative kindergarten so young children had a place to learn and socialize.

Coming to Newfoundland in 1973 and working initially as a school guidance counsellor, she was soon appointed coordinator and later director of Memorial’s Diagnostic and Remedial Unit. Barbara Hopkins and her colleagues put their indelible stamps on the education of hundreds of special education teachers who came to the unit to gain experience in helping children with special learning needs.

A variety of people came to the unit and benefited from Barbara’s guidance. Once, a young secretarial student on field placement, was asked to punch holes in a large stack of documents so that they could be stored in binders. Sometime later, Barbara enquired about her progress. No papers had been punched. The woman explained that she had not been taught how to use a holepuncher. Barbara patiently showed her how to work the device and left the young woman to finish the task. Subsequently, the punching went so well that some documents were riddled with holes. Upon assessing the damage, Barbara calmly spoke to the unit’s administrative assistant and said: “Call her school and see if she can stay another week. I think that we can help her learn.”

Barbara Hopkins was a leader in interprofessional education decades before it became a “hot button” topic in medical education. Barbara worked as a colleague with physicians from the Janeway Children’s Hospital and helped train medical interns and residents who came to gain experience at the unit. There she became aware of a subset of children whose learning issues and needs differed from many of the others. Ever curious, she started to learn about autism, a subject of which little was known at the time. Soon she started meeting with a self-help group of parents of autistic children. In the absence of either official or organized resources in the province, the group gathered to provide moral support, exchange stories or sometimes to shed tears. Barbara brought information, focus and hope to this group from which emerged the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador. Recognizing that the needs of children and their families transcended our provincial borders, Barbara served on the Board and later, as president of the Autism Society of Canada.

On a global basis, autism is the second most common developmental disorder in children. The incidence appears to be skyrocketing. Recent estimates suggest that one out of every 166 children born may have some form of autism. Barbara Hopkins knows that this is an important issue for all of us and worthy of continued research, assessment and support.
Barbara Hopkins and members of the Autism Society have been tireless in their efforts in support of their cause. Recent successes of the society include the development of Shamrock Farm on Memorial’s campus, but achievements such as these have not come quickly or easily. After one particularly non-productive meeting that Barbara and a colleague had with the government, they left the Confederation Building in complete silence, ‘shell-shocked’ by what seemed to be a total lack of understanding on the part of the minister. Their silence remained unbroken until they reached Barbara’s home. As she started to leave the car, Barbara turned and spoke to her colleague: “Don’t worry. She’ll be gone from office before long, and we’ll still be here.”

Chancellor, she is still here. Standing before you is not just a woman, but an inspiration to us all. Though retired from our university, she has not retired from her commitment to serve our people. In recognition of this educator and humanitarian who gave direction and leadership locally, provincially and nationally to increase awareness and understanding of autism, I present for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, Barbara Hopkins.

Dr. Donald W. McKay
University orator

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