Spear to Posthumously Receive Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Hero Award

The 2012 Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Hero Awards will be presented to five members of the Syracuse University or greater Syracuse communities during Syracuse University’s 27th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, “A Living Legacy: The Fierce Urgency of Now.” The event will be held Saturday, Jan. 21, at 6:30 p.m. in the Carrier Dome, and is free and open to the public.

This year’s Unsung Hero Award recipients are Lt. Col. MaryJo Timpano, director of staff for the 174th Fighter Wing of the New York Air National Guard (community adult category); Emily Kelsey-Gossard, a senior at Marcellus High School (community youth category); Risa Cantu C’DeBaca, a senior majoring in women’s and gender studies and minoring in sociology at SU (SU/ESF student category); Cheryl Spear, SU doctoral student, scholar, advocate and service provider for individuals with disabilities (SU/ESF student category); and Lynda Hamilton ’74, manager of the Brockway Dining Center on the SU campus (SU/ESF faculty/staff category).

Spear passed away on Dec. 11, following a battle with cancer; she is receiving the 2012 Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung Hero Award posthumously. She was nominated for the award by friends, colleagues and several students whom she supported.

Cheryl Spear

Spear overcame adversity and late-onset visual impairment to spend a great deal of her life opening doors within society and higher education for others.

As an advocate, Spear was tireless in her efforts to promote equal opportunity and civil rights for people with disabilities—particularly individuals who are blind or partially sighted—in public libraries, institutions of higher education and among public service providers. At SU, she sought greater access to technology, electronic format of standard printed reading materials, classroom accommodations and fuller access to theater performances. As a person who was blind herself, Spear brought sensitivity and knowledge surrounding the issues and problems related to vision loss through her own experiences.

As an innovator, Spear developed the process for providing audio description of films and videos that are used in the classroom. She has also served in a consultant role with Syracuse Stage during its process of introducing audio-described performances for each of their productions.

As a teacher, Spear developed a support system and orientation to assist international students who are blind or partially sighted to provide guidance in arranging for housing, transportation, banking and other related needs. She taught students about American culture and the steps needed to arrange for necessary services and supports in order to live and function independently.

“What makes Cheryl an extraordinary unsung hero is that she has not only forced doors open for other people with disabilities or who are discriminated against because of their race, gender, sexuality or age, but she also worked long and steadily, often at the expense of her own advancement, to hold open those doors for them as they have advanced in their careers and lives,” says Holly Dobbins, who nominated Spear for the award. “Simply put, she put others first her entire life.”