A therapy session at Harry Jersig Speech-Language-Hearing Center at OLLU.
A student conducts a therapy session at Harry Jersig Speech-Language-Hearing Center at OLLU. Credit: Courtesy / OLLU

Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) has received what will be the largest gift in its history, benefiting the university’s speech and language pathology research. Elizabeth Carrow-Woolfolk and Robert M. Woolfolk of Houston have bequeathed their estate to the university, as well as an initial $1 million for the creation of a doctoral program in speech pathology and enhanced curriculum at the bachelor’s and master’s levels.

The subsequent estate gift of an undisclosed amount will create the Woolfolk Center for Research in Language Disorders equipped with an endowment for additional faculty, scholarships, and capital improvements. Together the two gifts, which were announced Tuesday, will exceed the largest previous gift in OLLU history, which was $2 million from energy executive Bill Greehey in 2010.

The historic gift is but the latest milestone in the life of Carrow-Woolfolk, 89, who has devoted her life to studying speech disorders and helping those who desire to overcome them.

“When a person can’t communicate, it becomes our problem, too,” Carrow-Woolfolk said. Her research is more than a career and more than a mission. She is both fascinated by language and compelled to help others.

Robert Woolfolk and Elizabeth Carrow-Woolfolk.
Robert Woolfolk and Elizabeth Carrow-Woolfolk. Credit: Courtesy / OLLU

This mix of passions is what ties Carrow-Woolfolk to OLLU, which was her academic and spiritual home. As a member of the Congregation of Divine Providence, she graduated from Our Lady of the Lake College (before it was a university) in 1949 as Sister Mary Arthur Carrow. From there she went on to the University of Texas at Austin for her master’s degree, planning to return to San Antonio’s Westside to be a teacher. 

While at UT, she discovered a new passion: language.

“When I started I didn’t know very much about speech and hearing problems, but it tweaked my interest, and I became a student of language and its disorders,” Carrow-Woolfolk said.

When she returned to OLLU in 1951, Carrow-Woolfolk continued her studies. In 1955, she returned again to OLLU, this time with a doctorate from Northwestern University. Carrow-Woolfolk put her learning to work in the basement of Providence Hall, where she began teaching classes in speech pathology. Under Carrow-Woolfolk’s direction, those classes would grow into the Harry Jersig Speech-Language-Hearing Center.

Carrow-Woolfolk eventually left the Congregation and married Robert Woolfolk. She continued her work in speech and language pathology at Baylor Medicine and UT. 

Carrow-Woolfolk went on to lead speech pathology services at Methodist, St. Luke’s, and Texas Children’s Hospitals in Houston. She has published extensively in her field, including diagnostic material for speech-hearing-language disorders. She has authored several editions of the Comprehensive Assessment of Spoken Language.

She has always generously shared her success with her alma mater. The Woolfolks have supported OLLU by funding scholarships, lecture series, and events; the rebuilding of Main Building after a 2008 fire; and the establishment of the Woolfolk Chair in Communication Sciences.

The Jersig Center has prepared clinically trained speech pathologists in San Antonio and throughout Texas and has provided clinical services to clients from across the state. Among the types of disorders treated are language disorders, stuttering, voice problems, and disorders related to autism, Alzheimer’s, cerebral palsy, brain injury, and learning disabilities. This year, more than 300 prospective students from across the nation applied for 24 slots in the master’s program.

Harry Jersig Speech-Language-Hearing Center at OLLU.
Harry Jersig Speech-Language-Hearing Center at OLLU. Credit: Courtesy / OLLU

Seeing those students go into speech pathology has been particularly gratifying for Carrow-Woolfolk, who wants to see the field progress.

With the true mind of a researcher, Carrow-Woolfolk doesn’t consider her own work to be complete either, and she’s not impressed with her own altruism. “You can’t just look back and shake your own hand,” she said.

Research has always suited Carrow-Woolfolk. Even as a child she had always asked, “Why?” She wanted answers to questions and solutions to problems. Her curiosity, like her service, focuses on results. In her field, those results are readily apparent.

“[Speech-hearing-language] is one of the therapies where you can really make a difference,” Carrow-Woolfolk said. 

On the other hand, she rarely stops to reflect on why she does all that she does. A passion for the subject and a desire to help people propel her forward.

“I’ve always cared for people and their well-being,” Carrow-Woolfolk told The Rivard Report. “I suspect [spiritual] motivation is very much a part of it.”

These passions have also kept her sharp. At 89 years old, Carrow-Woolfolk is translating some of her diagnostic tests and resources into Spanish. 

“Think of all the children who are going to be helped,” she said.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.