Eugene McVicker, 84; Chairman at Gallaudet

Rev. McVicker was founder of the religion department at Gallaudet University. His parents were deaf.
Rev. McVicker was founder of the religion department at Gallaudet University. His parents were deaf. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 8, 2008

Eugene R. McVicker, 84, a retired Lutheran minister and founder and first chairman of Gallaudet University's religion department, died Nov. 1 from complications of Alzheimer's disease at Homewood at Plum Creek, a retirement facility in Hanover, Pa.

Rev. McVicker, the youngest son of deaf parents, had long been interested in working on behalf of the hearing impaired. While enrolled at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, he was encouraged by a professor to consider a special ministry to the deaf because of his understanding of people with hearing loss.

For six years, he developed ministries to the deaf at congregations in Pennsylvania and Maryland and in 1959 accepted an invitation to establish a religion department at Gallaudet. The department was funded by an $18,000 gift to the college from E. Foss Wilson, an assistant secretary of the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare and a member of the Gallaudet board.

"More and more, college educators are coming to understand that they cannot properly educate young men and women and leave out of their curriculum courses in religion," Rev. McVicker said at the time of his appointment.

He served as chairman of the new department and as the university's chaplain. He also provided pastoral counseling to students and taught religious history and comparative religion. When he lectured, he used both American Sign Language and spoken English, whispering the words for students who relied on lip reading. He was department chairman for almost 30 years.

Eugene Robbins McVicker was born in Watsontown, Pa. He and his brother and sister soon learned sign language and, at the invitation of neighbors, began attending Sunday school at Watsontown's Lutheran church. Eventually, they persuaded their parents to attend. The children would sit in the pew, silently translating the sermon into sign language for their parents.

Rev. McVicker enlisted in the Navy shortly after graduating from high school in 1942 and served as a radioman, intercepting Japanese radio and Morse communications at Imperial Beach, Calif.

He knew, even as a young man, that he would spend his life helping people who were hearing impaired. He knew the challenges they faced.

After the war, he received his undergraduate degree in history from Gettysburg College in 1950 and his divinity degree from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 1953. A year later, he completed a master's degree in special education from Columbia University, with teaching certification from the Lexington School for the Deaf in Flushing, N.Y.

During his three decades at Gallaudet, Rev. McVicker also held pastorates at several Lutheran churches in the Washington area, including Keller Memorial Lutheran Church in the District. He served as an interim pastor for St. Mark's Lutheran Church and Incarnation Lutheran Church in the District and Holy Comforter Lutheran Church in Baltimore.

Rev. McVicker also taught sign language classes at Gettysburg College and at the seminary and spent several summers as a senior staff counselor for YMCA camps.

He received a master's degree in 1972 and a doctorate in 1979, both in philosophy, from George Washington University. His dissertation was titled "Social Christianity: A Study of Four Types of Protestant Reactions to New Deal Issues." He was also widely published.

He and his wife, Silver Spring residents for many years, moved to Gettysburg after his retirement from Gallaudet in 1987.

Rev. McVicker became a Gettysburg battlefield guide for the National Park Service, offering tours in spoken English and American Sign Language. Deaf visitors from across the country knew to ask for Rev. McVicker, said his daughter, Marilyn McVicker of Bakersville, N.C.

Survivors also include his wife of 60 years, Mildred Cook McVicker of Hanover; two other children, Marcia McVicker of New Orleans and David McVicker of Mount Airy; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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