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In Memoriam
Richard Venezky

Oct. 8, 2004--The following tribute was presented by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, H. Rodney Sharp Chair in Human Services, Education and Public Policy, at the General Faculty Meeting on Oct. 4.

I knew Dick Venezky from his groundbreaking work, even before he came to join us in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Delaware in 1977. Dick made a discovery about English orthography (that is, print and how it sounded) in 1970 that few in the world were prepared to make. Using the computer--at a time when they were as big as bookcases--Dick found that English spelling was more predictable than it appeared on its face. Even though we have words like “cough,” “bough” and “through,” all sharing the “ough” and yet sounding differently, there is regularity in English spelling-to-sound patterns that human beings can actually detect and use in learning to read. His work was groundbreaking because at the time, researchers, as well as teachers of reading, were sure that learning to read was at best a difficult activity built on a language code that required the pure memorization of capricious patterns. Dick turned that all around.

And, Dick continued to turn around many understandings in the world of literacy and reading because Dick questioned assumptions and challenged received “wisdom” in a theoretically rich and empirically guided way that left the field of literacy and reading in better shape than when he left it. Dick left us after a long and incredibly productive career on June 11, 2004. This was after a two-year battle with leukemia, during which Dick never uttered a discouraging word and kept fighting with all his strength. He even invited a graduate student to join his laboratory this year. June 11 was a mere 22 days after we held a festschrift celebration at Winterthur in his honor that drew people from all over the country. In the end, Dick was too ill to attend the celebration in person but we had it piped into his hospital room. He was so gracious in his remarks to us over his loudspeaker phone. We were all so glad to have assembled to honor him and his contribution to educational research.

Dick was an amazing renaissance man. Having obtained his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at Cornell University, he went on to get his Ph.D. in linguistics at Stanford. We brought him as a Unidel Professor to what was then educational studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was chair of the department of computer science. Dick could have held joint appointments here in computer sciences (in fact, he did), English, psychology and art. Why? Because Dick not only worked on the orthography of contemporary English but collaborated with researchers for years at the University of Toronto to derive a concordance of Old English. And, he could have had an appointment in art for his glass collection and pursuit of art. A conversation with Dick could go anywhere--and often did--because Dick was so knowledgeable about so much.

I am sorry now that I did not tell him how brilliant he was. I am sorry now that I did not tell him how important he was to our academic unit. When Dick spoke at a meeting, people knew that even if they didn’t agree, what Dick said was the product of a lucid and systematic analytic mind. He had the respect of all of us and the love of some of us, too. It’s sometimes difficult to have a renaissance person in your midst, who constantly reminds you by his example of your own intellectual shortcomings.

We in the School of Education will miss Dick Venezky. We’ll miss his ready wit, his razor sharp mind and his incisive and brilliant take on research and on the world. Dick is undoubtedly enriching academic heaven now, talking ideas and working through knotty research problems in amusing collaborations with other departed academics just as he did in life.

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11:50 a.m., June 14, 2004--Richard Venezky, 66, Unidel Professor of Educational Studies and professor of computer and information sciences and of linguistics at the University of Delaware, died June 11.

For more than three decades, Dr. Venezky was an authority on literacy, spelling and educational technology, helping to pioneer the use of computers to aid in education. He served on the UD faculty since 1977.

He served as the national research director for the U.S. Secretary of Education's Initiative on Reading and Writing; director of computing for the Dictionary of old English at the University of Toronto; and co-director for research and development for the National Center on Adult Literacy.

He was the Benton Visiting Scholar in Education at the University of Chicago, a scholar in residence at the U.S. Department of Education, and senior researcher at the organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

Dr. Venezky also was a consultant to the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) in Washington, D.C. He recently received a multimillion-dollar grant for a five-year study on adult literacy.

In May 2004, a festschrift was held in his honor. At that time, the Richard Venezky Award was founded for creative work in the area of literacy.

Before coming to the University of Delaware, he chaired computer sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Born in Pittsburgh, he held a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, a master’s degree in linguistics from Cornell University and a doctorate in linguistics from Stanford University.

He authored books, including “The American Way of Spelling: The Structure and Origins of American English Orthography,” and journal articles on the design of computer-assisted instruction, English orthography, reading instruction and the psychology of reading. He developed computer-processing systems for two major dictionary projects, in addition to serving in consulting roles for other dictionaries, including The Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1996, he was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame, and in 1999, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Society for the Scientific Study of Education.

He was an inspiring teacher and mentor, brilliant, but always with time to answer questions or make a joke. He was an avid and successful gardener and a lover of old cars, Westerns and glass sculpture.

Dr. Venezky is survived by his wife, Karen Venezky, who serves on the New Castle County Council; his son, Elie; and his daughter, Dina, and her husband and son. He is also survived by his mother, Isabelle; sisters, Diane Puklin and Carol Levenson; and numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.

A funeral service was held June 13 at Temple Beth El in Newark.

Shiva will be held at the Venezky home at 8 p.m., from Monday through Thursday, June 14-17.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to the Richard Venezky Award, c/o Ludwig Mosberg, School of Education, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716; or to the Jewish Federation of Delaware, 100 West 10th St., Suite 301, Wilmington, DE 19801.