Notable People

Madge Skelly-Hakanson - Pioneer in Speech Pathology

10322 Lake Shore Boulevard
Madge Skelly-Hakanson
Madge Skelly-Hakanson

One of the remarkable personalities to call Bratenahl home was Madge Skelly Hakanson, the wife of long-time resident Richard Hakanson. Dr. Skelly’s accomplishments stand out even in Bratenahl, where excellence in achievement is commonplace.

Dr. Skelly, a full-blooded Iroquois Indian, was born in Hazlewood, Pennsylvania, in 1902. She spent her entire life in the communications field of one form or another. A child of the theatre; both parents, as well as her grandparents and uncles, were professional performers.

As a child, Dr. Skelly learned Indian Hand Talk from her grandparents, who were scouts for the Union Army during the Civil War. Indian Hand Talk is a silent method of communication that was most effective in backstage theatre life.

Dr. Skelly earned honors in high school and won a scholarship to Seaton Hill College in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. It was at Seaton Hill that she first met Richard Hakanson, through their mutual love of the theatre.

Madge went on to a career as a professional actress, director, and writer. She worked for KDKA radio in Pittsburgh, writing three shows per week, also serving as actress, director, and sound effects technician. She also wrote a column for a local newspaper.

She went on to earn a Master of Arts degree from Duquesne University. She married to Richard Foust, who died in action during World War II.

She was asked by the University of Arizona to teach speech to international students and agreed to stay on in Tucson and teach two classes. She found that she loved teaching speech but she wanted to do more than just teach. That led her to earn the equivalent of a Master of Science degree from the University of Arizona.

She learned that to achieve her goals in the field of Speech Pathology; she had to obtain a Ph.D. After being rejected by other universities because of her age, she was accepted by St. Louis University and earned her Ph.D. in 1961 at the age of fifty-nine.

Her first employment with her new degree was two part-time jobs. One was with the Shriner Hospital in St. Louis and the other working with veterans. After eighteen months, she began working full time as chief of a department with twelve people under her.

Dr. Skelly’s work in the field of speech pathology involved teaching speech to those who have no tongues. Patients learned to speak using the lips and the muscles of the face to duplicate the sounds made by the tongue.

During these years, she was asked to help a young man who had lost his entire front neck and jaw to cancer. She came up with the idea of teaching him Indian Hand Talk. Within hours the young sailor had mastered twenty-four simple signals. After some time, he learned over 250 signals, which was equivalent to an extensive vocabulary.

Dr. Skelly stressed that “Indian Hand Talk is not a language.” American Sign Language is a language and does not cross cultural barriers. Any culture can understand Indian Hand Talk.

Indian Hand Talk originated centuries ago when nomadic tribes traveled in small bands. Most of these bands had their language, but when they encountered each other along their journeys, they were able to help each other survive by indicating the location of food, water, shelter, and the presence of danger. Because Indian hand Talk involves theatrical movement, the entire spectrum of human emotion and feeling can be communicated.

Harvard and Radcliffe had received an endowment grant to preserve the biographies of 40 outstanding women. Dr. Skelly’s biography is among them. Her list of accomplishments, awards, and honors is so long as to be redundant and ranges from the Federal Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon to a plaque dedicating a theater in Manistee, Michigan.

Dr. Skelly’s presence in Bratenahl is part of a love story every bit as dramatic as the rest of her life. After the death of Richard Hakanson’s first wife, he attempted to find his old friend, Madge Skelly, through her college alumni association. He was successful and went to see her in St. Louis. “I open the door, and there stood Richard. It was though forty years fell away,” said Dr. Skelly. They were married several weeks later.

When she first came to Bratenahl in 1983, she became a Mather Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She took a job with the Cleveland Veterans Administration Hospital as a consultant in speech pathology. After only two years, she accepted a position at Deaconess Medical Center in St. Louis to head a new department teaching her methods of communication. They moved to St. Louis in July 1985. Even though her stay in Bratenahl was brief, Dr. Skelly touched the lives of many people. She was a power of example and inspiration to many people, women in particular.