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Couple’s gift expands legacy of hearing, speech research

Oct. 11, 2018, 8:50 AM

Anne Marie Tharpe, PhD, and her husband, Jim Kramka, are making a gift to VUMC through their wills in honor of Tharpe’s late father. (photo by John Russell)

by Matt Batcheldor

Anne Marie Tharpe, PhD, might not have become a worldwide authority on pediatric hearing loss if she hadn’t been looking for something to do during study hall in her high school years in Memphis. One day, she and a friend volunteered to work in a classroom with deaf children.

“We knew nothing about deafness, but it got us out of study hall and just by happenstance we both really enjoyed it,” she said.

It began a career devoted to understanding and mitigating the impact of hearing loss in children. Tharpe, chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences and associate director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, is ensuring that work endures and grows. She and her husband, Jim Kramka, senior director for Housing Facilities Operations and Management at Vanderbilt University, are making a gift to VUMC through their wills in honor of her late father, the Honorable James M. Tharpe.

Tharpe shared the story behind her gift on Oct. 5 at an inaugural gathering of donors who have committed to affecting the future of health care through a gift in their wills, retirement plans or life insurance policies. The event also included a keynote speech by Nancy Brown, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine, on the future of medicine.

The James M. Tharpe Fund for Pediatric Communication Disorders will support endowed research and directorships in the divisions within the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences that serve children. Tharpe said she and her husband decided to name the fund after her father because of his devotion to children, whose interests he strived to serve in the divorce and child custody cases he oversaw as a Shelby County Circuit Court judge.

“It was particularly difficult for my father to see families torn apart and children suffering as a result,” Tharpe said. “The purpose of this fund is aligned with the way he lived his life.”

Judge Tharpe graduated from Vanderbilt Law School in 1949 on the G.I. Bill, after serving in World War II at Pearl Harbor and later in the Pacific theater, including the Battle of Guadalcanal. “The reputation of Vanderbilt came to me via my father’s experience here, which was very positive,” Tharpe said.

She came to Vanderbilt in 1978 as a graduate student, when the Bill Wilkerson Center was an independent, community-based nonprofit organization dedicated to serving those with communication disorders. The Bill Wilkerson Center officially merged with Vanderbilt in 1997 and resulted in the construction of Medical Center East in 2005 to house the center and other clinics.

Tharpe earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from Vanderbilt, and since 2009 has been associate director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center and chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, ranked No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. She continues to conduct research and instruct graduate students in all four of the department’s degree programs. Most of her research has focused on the early identification and intervention of hearing loss in infants and young children.

In that area, she has presided over dramatic progress for such children. When she began at Vanderbilt in 1978, she saw many children who were profoundly deaf, some as a result of the rubella epidemic.

“At that time, because of the limitations of the hearing technology, it was very difficult for children with hearing loss to develop speech and spoken language,” she said.

In 2018, those limitations are gone. Children with all degrees of hearing loss, even those with profound losses, can develop spoken language thanks to technological advances in hearing aids and cochlear implants. Much of the research on those devices is being done at the Bill Wilkerson Center.

Tharpe can foresee a world where hearing loss is treated with genetic medicine and fully implantable devices will supplant devices worn outside the body. Her generous gift will support that future research, as well as offering financial assistance for families who use services such as the Mama Lere Hearing School, a preschool for children with hearing loss.

“I don’t see this gift as perpetuating my work as much as helping the department continue to move forward,” she said. “We do such great work all over VUMC. It’s remarkable. So much of that work saves lives and is so important. The work that we do here doesn’t save lives, but it provides hope and opportunities, and enhances the lives of individuals who have more struggles than most of us.”

To learn how you can support VUMC through a gift in your will, visit VanderbiltHealth.org/giftplanning.

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