Alumni Relations points the spotlight on alumni who make things happen in their community, at home or work.
Gary G. Brannigan '69
Gary Brannigan's fascination with how children learn could be said to have originated with his own first day at St. Charles School in Bridgeport in the early 1950s. The professor of psychology at SUNY-Plattsburgh and recent recipient of the State University of New York's Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities is, unquestionably, one of the world's experts on the Bender-Gestalt test, which is used around the world in educational, psychological, and neurological assessments of children and adults.
But Dr. Brannigan's career really began, in a sense, at the age of four when he was sent prematurely to elementary school because his mother had her hands full with his younger brother and sister at home.
"I did not want to stay there," he recalled in a written account of his first day of school. "Eventually, though, I stopped crying and started planning. The first chance I could get I was out of there." During recess, to the horror of his mother, Dr. Brannigan quietly slipped away. Shipped back to school again on the second day, he evaded the teachers who were blocking the exits and scaled a five-foot playground wall and made a run for it. "After the second experience, my parents realized that I was not school material," he wrote. "The principal heartily agreed and told them to try again next year. As I look back on the experience, I realize that I was immature socially and emotionally (although my gross motor skills - especially climbing - were quite good!). I just wasn't ready to start school.
"I could not have imagined at the time that I would spend the next 50-plus years of my life 'in school,' and that my professional career would be devoted to the assessment of children's 'readiness' skills."
Growing up in Bridgeport, Conn., Dr. Brannigan went on to Notre Dame High School and then to Fairfield University, where he was fortunate enough to study with Dr. Alexander Tolor, a noted authority on the Bender-Gestalt test, and to be guided by his informal academic advisor, Ron Salafia. "He was very free with his time and gave me a lot of guidance. The psych department was small but Fairfield really prepared us all well; we got a lot of experience in research methods, and were ready for graduate school."
As a senior, Dr. Brannigan - already married to his wife Linda and commuting from Trumbull - was set loose in the library by Dr. Tolor to come up with a technique that would measure the concept of psychological distance - people's levels of intimacy and connection with others. The young student's work was a success, and became the basis of a number of articles that he co-authored with Dr. Tolor.
Later, as a graduate student at the University of Delaware, Dr. Brannigan would study the Bender-Gestalt test in more depth. The seed planted at Fairfield by Dr. Tolor sprang to life, and the test became the focus of Dr. Brannigan's own ongoing research.
In short, what the test consists of in its original form is a series of designs printed on individual cards, to be copied by the test subject with pencil and paper. Interpreted within a battery of tests by skilled clinicians, it has a range of applications. The process of drawing the designs and the quality of the drawings themselves provide valuable information about visual-motor development and functioning. The test also yields insight into personality characteristics and psychological and neurological disorders.
"Once I was exposed to the test, I enjoyed working with it," says Dr. Brannigan. He and Dr. Tolor would go on to co-author a book on the clinical applications of the test, and over time Dr. Brannigan redesigned the test for different applications, culminating in the latest version, the Bender-Gestalt II, which was published in 2003.
Over the course of his career, Dr. Brannigan has published 14 books and countless academic articles, and has spent five years as the director of the Psychological Services Clinic at the Plattsburgh campus. He has served on the boards of four academic journals, and overseen the research of generations of graduate students.
But his most important work is on his desk right now. For the last 10 years he and co-author, Dr. Howard Margolis, have been working on Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds, a practical book of advice and guidance for parents with children who are struggling to read. It will be published sometime this year, with a website for parents (www.Reading2008.com) that will provide more detailed advice and information about how to best help their children.
"It's the first time I've written something like this for parents, to help them get the best for their children," said Dr. Brannigan. The book examines "risk factors" for reading disabilities, such as complications with pregnancy/delivery, exposure to lead, family history of reading problems; and then points out "early signs" of reading disabilities in children, such as difficulty recognizing and naming letters or comprehending what is read to them. The book then stresses what parents can do at home and in conjunction with school. Perhaps the most important part focuses on the federal laws that guarantee children the help they need. "Parents need to be knowledgeable about the law in order to be effective advocates for their children. This book will help them to take the right approach with schools and find the best way to help their children succeed."