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Deborah Vassar remembered as ‘gentle soul’ and ‘bright light’

By Susan White

Friends and colleagues will gather next month to celebrate the life of UNC School of Social Work faculty member Deborah J. Vassar.

Vassar, a clinical instructor and education specialist with the School’s Center for Aging Research and Educational Services (CARES), and the Family and Children’s Resource Program (FCRP), died suddenly from a heart attack on April 1, at her home in Snow Camp, N.C. She was 62. A memorial service was held for Vassar on April 6 in Keysville, Va. The celebration and remembrance service will be held on May 10 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 4907 Garrett Road, Durham.

Employed with the School of Social Work off and on for 20 years, Vassar was considered a “gentle soul” and a “bright light”—someone who was always eager to listen and offer encouragement, said Chris Howell, who had worked closely with Vassar since 1993.

“Her life was about giving to other people and taking care of other people but… she really believed that people had their own answers,” said Howell, a clinical instructor and education specialist with FCRP and CARES. “She would listen and give what she knew, but she believed that given the right situation and the right leadership, that people could be better and that they could help themselves.”

A native of Keysville, Vassar graduated with an MSW degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1977. Following graduation, she worked in social service departments in Virginia as a caseworker and as a child welfare supervisor. In 1993, she was hired by FCRP, where she began to develop curricula and lead child welfare social worker training. School of Social Work Dean Jack M. Richman was co-principal investigator for the program at that time and remembers how Vassar made an immediate impression.

“I even remember interviewing her,” Richman recalled. “She just sparkled. She just had an energy that you could tell this woman was a natural born trainer, and she just easily connected to people. It was startling. I walked out of that interview going, ‘We’ve got to hire her.’”

Vassar’s professional passions were in the areas of leadership development, coaching and facilitation, organizational change management, team building and community building. Her training emphasized community values and ethical decision-making. Over the course of her career, Vassar worked on a national scale with executives, managers, support personnel and employees in a variety of public, nonprofit, and for-profit settings. Her reputation as a “remarkable communicator” was well known, Richman added.

“She was just amazing,” he said. “She had not only a passion for the material, but she exuded this warmth and had the ability to connect with people that made her just an outstanding trainer.”

Vassar’s long-time friends and colleagues at the School of Social Work echoed those sentiments. “Everybody who met Deb loved her,” Howell added.
“She really was someone that everybody would like to be more like,” she said. “And if everybody just tried to live a little bit more like her, we’d all fail miserably, but if we all tried a little bit, the world would be a better place.”

Memorial contributions in Vassar’s name (checks only) can be made to the UNC School of Social Work Foundation to support ongoing leadership development and coaching for social workers. Please write “Deborah Vassar Fund” in the check memo line. Donations can be mailed to Mary Beth Hernandez, UNC School of Social Work, Campus Box 3550, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3550.