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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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Paul L. Pfaff: The Gift of Speech

A legendary SDSU professor is remembered through a scholarship in his name.

When Paul Pfaff was out of earshot, his students called him god.

The professor’s riveting voice, keen wit and rapier-like tongue both impressed and slightly intimidated students on the campus of San Diego State College in the 1940s.

“He was very demanding, but never unfair,” recalled Virginia Smith Richardson, '49, who maintained a close friendship with Pfaff until his death in 1992. “He had a knack of seeing the possibility in every student.”

Richardson was the first recipient of the Paul Pfaff Memorial Scholarship, which enabled her to return to State and complete a master’s degree in 1970. After graduation, Richardson went on to create and teach the first program for aphasic children at Rowan Elementary School in the San Diego City School District.

In honor of Pfaff’s legacy, she has made a contribution to the scholarship for high achieving graduate students or upper division undergraduates in the School of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences.

A multi-faceted legacy

The first San Diego State professor to teach in the field of speech pathology, Pfaff earned his undergraduate degree at State and his doctorate at the University of Southern California under Lee Edward Travis, a pioneering speech pathologist and clinical psychologist.

Pfaff joined the San Diego State faculty in 1932, served several times as chair of the speech department and enhanced its reputation by hiring some of the most illustrious academics in the field, including the oral interpreter C.C. Cunningham.

“These areas of study would not have evolved as broadly quickly or as comprehensively as they did without Paul,” Richardson said. “He brought in quality people to lay the foundation of the school.”

Pfaff’s influence extended beyond the speech, language and hearing sciences. In 1969, an alumnus who decided to remain anonymous donated the Paul L. Pfaff Collection of Modern Rare Editions, consisting of rare 20th century poetry, plays, novels and fine editions of classic authors.

The donor noted that Pfaff was not only an inspiring teacher, but also a collector of fine editions. Among the items in the Paul L. Pfaff Collection are autographed copies of work by T.S. Eliot and Eugene O’Neill.

The collection is housed in Special Collections at SDSU's Library and Information Access.

About the speech language program

Today, speech language is a degree program in the School of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at SDSU. The school trains students for the separate but related professions of speech-language pathology, communicative sciences and audiology.

Through its audiology clinic and speech-language clinic, the school offers diagnostic and rehabilitative services to university students and staff, as well as to individuals in the community.