Ann Arbor is a familiar place for me. It is where I grew up and it’s the town I’m proud to say my family calls home. An interview in the spring of 2014 for a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at Wallace House, however, took me to a nook of the city just east of the campus’ edge and it changed my life. I walked into 620 Oxford Rd. unsure of what would be asked of me, or what I would say or do, after responding to the “What’s your dream?” query that I knew was coming.
As I sat at the short end of a long, rectangular table my plan to impress the nine-member selection committee surrounding me seemed to be working. I was using American Sign Language while I answered the first question and that was playing well. “When you do that, make sure you have napkins to hand out because they’ll all be drooling,” friend and former Knight-Wallace Fellow John U. Bacon advised while preparing me for this very moment. What I could not be prepared for was what happened next.
After discussing sign language, deaf culture and my experiences as a child of deaf parents, Charles Eisendrath lowered his head, peered at me and asked, “Have you ever thought about putting together your knowledge and passion of sign language, deaf culture and sports?” That question put the wheels in motion for a journey I didn’t see coming like a linebacker making a blindside sack. “No,” I said quietly, knowing my response did not impress any of the assembled panelists.
“Well, why not?” Eisendrath pressed.
“With the day-to-day grind of my job along with being a husband and dad, I haven’t had time to think about it,” I said, trying to defend a dormant dream.
“Maybe you should,” he fired back.
“Maybe you should give me a spot in this Fellowship and I’ll come up with something,” I shot back with a disarming smile.
“Well played,” University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said with a nod when hearing a recollection of the aforementioned exchange during his recent Wallace House visit with the Fellows.
“And someday,” I told Schlissel matter-of-factly, “this will be a Michigan Difference commercial.”
Back when I began the fellowship my plan was to write my first book. Scotty Bowman, Mike Babcock, Larry Brown, Jim Leyland, Tom Izzo, Lloyd Carr, Bob Bowman, John Beilein, Mark Dantonio and Carol Hutchins—some of the best coaches in a handful of sports—agreed to help me. Those interviews about leadership and communicating will have to wait. Since my first semester individual mandatory meeting with Eisendrath, relentlessly pursuing a platform to make media accessible to my parents, my nephews and about one million people in the U.S. has become my mission. Attempting to make the most of an opportunity with infinite possibilities, a slew of experts in and around the University have set me up for success by graciously sharing tips and connecting me with other people, all of whom have been eager to help. Five students in Len Middleton’s course that focuses on creating a business plan are helping me put my dream on paper. A 12-minute pilot program was filmed on campus and has been reviewed by two focus groups of deaf people meeting at Wallace House.
A second pilot has been scheduled for April. Hopefully by this summer, a Deaf Access Media website and YouTube channel will feature a 30-minute weekly show that will give deaf and hard-of-hearing people news, business, politics, sports, entertainment and more in American Sign Language for the first time. The show will attempt to address the failure of closed captioning, which is in English, a second language for some deaf and hard of hearing people. In some cases, English is a distant second language. My plan is to expand to a daily show and repurpose radio and podcasts along with all forms of media for deaf audiences.
My project is as close to my heart as my rib cage and my fellow Fellows and the Knight-Wallace Fellows are not far removed. Each person, including the staff, who has the good fortune to walk through the doors at 620 Oxford has provided me with encouragement. Some have chipped in with their expertise behind cameras and at keyboards.
When our year kicked off with the Hovey Lecture in the fall of 2014, Bacon implored the new class to come away from the fellowship with something tangible to show for the opportunity. I’m thankful that with a team the late, great Bo Schembechler would be proud of, I will do just that this spring. I also hope something else Bacon said isn’t published for many decades. “Man, Lage,” Bacon said, shaking his head from side to side when he heard about my project. “If you pull this off, it will be in the lead of your obituary.”