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A Friend and a Mentor: ILA Remembers Past President Jack Cassidy

By Colleen Patrice Clark
 | May 25, 2021

Cassidy_w340Jack Cassidy, professor emeritus at both Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Millersville University in Pennsylvania, died on Saturday, May 22, after a long-fought battle with cancer. He was 80.

Cassidy was a past president of the International Reading Association (IRA, now the International Literacy Association, ILA) from 1982 to 1983.

As messages poured in following the news of his death, many focused on his stature—in intellect, heart, and even physical presence. (In fact, he was so well known for his height that he included it on his curriculum vitae: 6’4".)

What was made clear in all of the tributes was his immense dedication to the profession, to ILA, and to the next generation of literacy leaders. He was referred to as a powerhouse, a role model, and the conscience of the field.

Cassidy’s name is synonymous with service to ILA. He helped found its affiliates the Diamond State Reading Association and the Texas Association for Literacy Education (TALE), serving as their second and first presidents, respectively. He served on numerous committees and special interest groups (SIGs) as member or chair, including but hardly limited to the IRA Standards 2010 Committee and the Commission on the Role of the Reading Specialist. He was highly involved in IRA’s LEADER SIG and was the executive secretary of the Specialized Literacy Professionals (SLP) for three decades.

Perhaps one of his most notable contributions was his creation of the What’s Hot, What’s Not survey, first published in IRA’s member newspaper in 1997. The project influences conversations in the field by surveying literacy experts on what topics are receiving the most and least attention, as well as what topics should be receiving attention.

For many graduate students and preservice teachers, the survey results served as their introduction to Cassidy and his work. Many teacher educators still use the results to guide their syllabi and classroom conversations.

But beyond his professional contributions—which included numerous books, chapters, journal articles, curriculum materials, and more—Cassidy will be remembered as a mentor and a beloved friend.

“Our coauthorship is what has been most visible to the public,” said Stephanie Grote-Garcia, who coauthored the What’s Hot survey with Cassidy for many years, “but Dr. Cassidy’s impact and influence on my life stretches well past writing together.”

Grote-Garcia, professor at University of the Incarnate Word in Texas, first met Cassidy early on in her career as his graduate assistant at Texas A&M. That was when he introduced her to his former graduate assistant, Robert—who is now her husband of 14 years. Cassidy, known to many for his love of celebrating friends’ and family’s milestones, even hosted their wedding reception at his home.

“[He] remained one of my strongest supporters and influencers,” said Grote-Garcia, who cofounded TALE with him and received the organization’s Jack Cassidy Distinguished Service Award the year after it was founded and awarded to Cassidy himself. “We coauthored What’s Hot, copresented research, planned multiple conferences, and cofounded the Texas Association for Literacy Education….Dr. Cassidy’s legacy will live on through TALE, SLP, and all those who knew him. I am truly grateful to have had him as a friend and mentor.”

“His fingerprints are everywhere”

Though his name is most closely associated with Texas A&M and TALE, Cassidy began his career in Pennsylvania after earning an undergraduate degree in educational psychology and graduate degrees in secondary and English education, all from Temple University. He served as a classroom teacher at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and also as a school reading specialist and a K–12 reading supervisor.

He taught at Lehigh University, University of Delaware, and Millersville University before joining Texas A&M in 1998, where his many roles included associate dean of the College of Education and director of the Center for Educational Development, Evaluation and Research.

Among Cassidy’s many awards: IRA’s Special Service Award, the A.B. Herr Award from the College Reading Association, and the Association for Literacy Educators and Researchers Laureate Award. He was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame in 2010.

Cassidy was also a prolific writer and editor, most recently publishing What’s Hot in Literacy: Exemplar Models of Effective Practice (Emerald Publishing), which he coedited with Evan Ortlieb, a longtime coauthor alongside Grote-Garcia on the What’s Hot, What’s Not survey.

“Jack’s fingerprints can be found everywhere in the field of literacy education,” said Ortlieb, dean of the Zucker Family School of Education at The Citadel. “His influence and impact on my career are substantial; my trajectory was heavily influenced by incredible opportunities bestowed to me by Jack Cassidy.”

Ortlieb referred to Cassidy’s presence as infectious, describing how he thrived in social spaces, which made him a popular draw at conferences and meetings. “He could command a room effortlessly. His communicative approach married information dissemination with playful banter. If his name was in the program, you could rest assured it would be the most highly attended event at that time. That’s the Jack we all knew, and the one we loved.”

“His legacy remains far beyond hot topics in literacy,” Ortlieb added. “His mentorship and selfless creation of opportunities for others serves as a foundation for all.”

The “conscience” of the profession: Tributes from the field for Jack Cassidy

“I don’t know of anyone in the field who cared more about and spent more time and energy tending to the welfare and integrity of the reading profession….Many of us try to be a conscience for the profession, but we pale in serving that role when we compare ourselves to Jack and the legacy he left for us. He has been our mariner in the voyage to sustain the profession. Sail on, Jack!” —P. David Pearson, University of California, Berkeley

“His passing is a profound loss to the literacy profession. From early in my career in higher education, Jack was a mentor, a friend, and a trusted colleague. We were colleagues through our years of service for IRA/ILA. I believe he was the youngest IRA president in history. And our collegial association went well beyond our IRA/ILA service, as his writings and scholarship continued to propel me to give back to the profession in ways that he did….Jack wore many hats as a mentor, a scholar, a professional leader, and a caring and trusted colleague, but perhaps his greatest hat for me was his friendship and support, and his never-ending belief that we can all do better with others at our side.” —Victoria J. Risko, Vanderbilt University

“In 1998, when I was elected to the IRA Board of Directors, I was told to not be surprised if one our past presidents came to our Board meetings. Well, that visionary mentor, a great literacy leader, was Jack Cassidy. During my presidential year (2010–2011), Jack was a member of the IRA Standards 2010 Committee and played a critical role in the development of these standards. Another fond memory that I have about Jack is his development of the What’s Hot, What’s Not survey, in which I had the opportunity to serve as one of the participants over the years….I appreciate and treasure everything that Jack taught me and educators throughout world.” —Patricia Edwards, Michigan State University

“What is the importance of our professional associations? Do you have to think about that query for a moment? Jack Cassidy would have responded in a flash. Jack knew that our professional associations provided the glue that held together virtually all of our efforts from providing quality praxis to learners across the lifespan, to undertaking impactful research whether of a more basic or the applied nature, to maintaining important relations with a world of literacy stakeholders, and to successfully training new generations of teachers and reading specialists. Jack would always be at the forefront, urging our associations to be strong advocates for all of us in our field. Indeed, we as professionals are better for all of Jack Cassidy’s efforts.” —Norman Stahl, Northern Illinois University

“Jack was known for many contributions to our field but especially his passionate commitment to our organization, his many talented doctoral students, and his innovative survey of trends in reading, the annual What’s Hot, What’s Not study. He was a friend to everyone in the literacy community and will be missed by us all. I will always remember his wide, welcoming smile each and every time we met.” —Donald J. Leu, University of Connecticut 

“Jack was my role model for many years. We met at least 50 years ago and I was immediately taken with his sense of humor and what seemed like a desire to mentor nearly every new member of what was then the International Reading Association. That included me. Sometimes we’d do a ‘Jack and Jill show,’ mostly talking about advocacy. Despite Jack’s breadth of knowledge, he would insist that I take the lead. When he suggested I run for IRA president, it was his confidence in me that convinced me to accept the challenge….I think he was most proud of the landmark What’s Hot, What’s Not survey he had begun for IRA/ILA, that stimulated many important conversations and that offered a vehicle for Jack to provide shared authorship and recognition to many up-and-coming graduate students. Jack will be missed in his professional capacity, but even more so in his selflessness and lifelong commitment to literacy.” —Jill Lewis-Spector, New Jersey City University

“Jack was a towering man, someone who filled the room. He had a wonderful laugh and his eyes were so expressive. I knew him primarily through his column, What’s Hot, and enjoyed being one who helped each year define and redefine his initial list [of topics], followed by his survey of whether something was hot or not….His column was popular because he knew how to speak to teachers and teacher educators. It became a trusted resource, something to look forward to each year. He was an inclusive colleague, and he will be missed by many for his magnanimity and humanity.” –Susan B. Neuman, New York University Steinhardt

“I met Jack Cassidy 45 years ago while in graduate school at the University of Delaware. Jack was director of reading for the local school district, and later became a professor at Millersville State College in Pennsylvania. Jack was elected to the IRA Board of Directors at the time, which necessitated missing classes some nights. He pressed me into service as a substitute, and we wrote together, too. Although only a student, he always treated me with great dignity and respect and, over the years, I saw that as his normal modus operandi; status just didn’t matter to Jack. What did matter were his commitments to his wife, Drew, their family, and to our profession. No member ever attended more ILA Board meetings than Jack (sometimes to the chagrin of the Board members), nor did anyone nominate as many ILA Board and officer candidates as Jack. One of his valuable contributions was his work with ILA’s LEADER-SIG, which became a kind of proving ground for future association leadership. Most people got to know of Jack through his What’s Hot, What’s Not poll. I loved Jack dearly, but each year when he’d buttonhole me to take that poll, it would drive me nuts. It required that you judge something ‘hot or not’ without a lot of quibbling, explanation, and Hamlet-like gnashing of teeth. The poll was straightforward, just like Jack. His passing is a great loss.” —Timothy Shanahan, University of Illinois at Chicago

“Jack Cassidy will be sorely missed. He was an almost bigger-than-life force in IRA! He was a great role model for so many of us: his enthusiastic energy and vision for improving IRA and our leadership in literacy; his critical sense of not just accepting what was but of applying his efforts to improve our services to members; his interest in each of us and desire to help us grow; and most of all, his warm smile and his inviting spirit.” —Donna Ogle, National Louis University

“Jack Cassidy has had a monumental influence on reading/literacy for over 50 years, manifested through a range of initiatives from publications to service to an extraordinary legacy of nurturing and mentoring. His influence extended from his own writings to a host of service commitments including presidency of both IRA and the College Reading Association to a willingness to go the extra mile for others, especially his students. He had a vision for what can be and an energy and compassion that was tirelessly committed to ensuring the well-being of the field and those of us engaged in trying to make a positive difference. As one of my colleagues suggested, he was the field’s conscience. He made sure that we held all of our professional organizations as well as those credentialing and accreditation bodies that control entry to the teaching profession to the highest of standards when it came to serving the interests of students, their families, and their teachers.” —Rob Tierney, University of British Columbia

If you would like to share a tribute for Jack Cassidy, please email social@reading.org.


Colleen Patrice Clark
is the managing editor of
Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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