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Steven K. Chough: An appreciation

April 8, 2022

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Dr. Steven Kevin Chough, ’61, passed away on March 30, 2022 in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was 90 years old.

Dr. Chough was a leader and passionate advocate for the needs of Deaf communities in the United States and internationally. He also was often called the father of social work with deaf populations for his groundbreaking pedagogy and research. Says Dr. Martha Sheridan, ’77, a retired professor of social work, “Dr. Chough was a trailblazer as a deaf social worker and in the field of mental health and deafness. He was especially supportive of me and others, including Dr. Barbara White, ’76, professor emerita, and Ms. Sanremi LaRue, as we entered graduate school and the profession. I often had him present to my classes.”

Dr. Dae-Kun Kim, EdS ’17 & PhD ’21, an assistant professor in the English program, wrote in a Facebook post, “I don’t know how my parents did it, but because of them, I got to meet Dr. Steven Chough. the first Korean Deaf person to receive a doctorate degree in 1978. With Dr. Chough’s wisdom, my parents were able to make decisions that led to who I am today. Without Dr. Chough’s wisdom and guidance that supported my parents, I would not be here. Thank you, Dr. Chough. I will live honoring your legacy.” (Dr. Kim has prepared an ASL rendition of the family-written obituary.)

According to his son, Alexander Chough, Dr. Chough’s life was the very embodiment of the American dream. Born Cho Kyong Koun in Kimchon, Korea on July 15, 1931 to Cho Hee Kap and Cho Lee Bok Hee, Steven was the youngest of five children. He became deaf from spinal meningitis at the age of three. He was educated at what is now the Seoul National School for the Deaf, where he showed a unique aptitude for languages, becoming fluent in Korean, Japanese, and English. 

At age 19, Steven became a teacher at the Christian School for the Blind and Deaf in Daegu, now known as the Daegu Yonghwa School. However, he sought the higher education opportunities that were afforded to his older, hearing siblings.

With the outbreak of the Korean War, Steven returned home to help evacuate his family. To secure seats for his family on a crowded train, Steven and other family members volunteered to support the South Korean war effort. As would be a theme in his life, Steven had to overcome societal biases toward Deaf people. He first worked in custodial services, but rose through the ranks to serve as an agent in the Republic of Korea Counter-Intelligence Corps. Later, Steven served as a civilian typist, translator, and assistant administrator with combat and counterintelligence units of the U.S. Army, where everyone called him “Joe.”

A U.S. soldier shared with Steven an article from the December 1950 issue of Collier’s magazine about Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C. Steven was determined to attend Gallaudet. A friendship with a U.S. G.I. named George Fling led George’s mother, Margaret, to establish the “Little Joe” fund through her church in Ashley, Ohio. This fund provided sponsorship and financial support for Steven to come to the United States and attend Gallaudet. The American-Korean Foundation secured Steven passage on a cargo ship, and after a 45-day journey, he arrived in San Francisco with $200 in his pocket and adopted the name Steven Kevin Chough. For the remainder of his life, Steven would be affectionately known by friends and colleagues simply as “SKC.”

At Gallaudet, Steven was exposed to a rich and vibrant Deaf culture. While keenly aware of the discrimination Deaf people faced in the U.S. and internationally, Steven often described his time at Gallaudet as an awakening, where he realized a deep sense of purpose and belonging. Active academically and in campus life, Steven served as president of Alpha Sigma Pi Fraternity. He also met the woman who would eventually become his wife of 54 years, Nancy Lillian Rohlin, ’66,  of Syracuse, New York. 

After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree at Gallaudet College in 1961, Steven earned a Master of Social Work degree at the University of Denver in 1963. He is believed to be the first deaf person to earn an MSW degree. He subsequently earned a Doctor of Social Welfare degree from Columbia University in the City of New York in 1978, where his dissertation focused on the need and acceptance of counseling services among Deaf college students. 

Despite the many challenges he faced trying to succeed on hearing campuses with few accommodations, Steven told the Saint Paul (Minnesota) Press, “Many times I felt just like drowning, but I had an obligation to those who had supported me in my life, so I just decided to fight, fight, fight. I couldn’t let them down.” 

Professionally, Steven dedicated his life to expanding mental health and social services, education opportunities, and civil rights for deaf people. He served as a counselor and social worker at schools for the deaf in New Mexico and Texas and at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. He held administrative roles with the Minnesota Department of Public Welfare and the Saint Paul-Ramsey Medical Center, and directed the Center for Deaf Treatment Services at Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital in Michigan. 

Later, Steven returned to his alma mater, Gallaudet University, as Dean of Student Affairs. Subsequently, he served as Coordinator for International Student Affairs, and as an associate professor at both Gallaudet’s Northeast and Northwest Washington campuses. While at the Northwest Campus, he organized several International Festival Weeks.

Steven also served as a faculty member at Madonna College (Michigan), Community College of Baltimore County (Maryland), and George Washington University (Washington, D.C.).

Steven authored numerous academic articles and was an accomplished public presenter, delivering keynote addresses and seminars across the globe. He was the recipient of dozens of awards, including the Faculty/Staff Member of the Year Award from the Gallaudet University Student Body Government (1987), the Professional Achievement Award from the University of Denver (1998), and the Excellence Award from the National Asian Deaf Congress (2000). He was also recognized as a Social Work Pioneer by the National Association of Social Workers in 2001. He presented “My Journey: From the Korean War to Gallaudet” during Gallaudet’s sesquicentennial celebration in 2014.

Steven served as a board member or advisor to dozens of organizations and government entities, and was especially proud of his work with the National Asian Deaf Congress and the Greater Washington Asian Deaf Association. 

Steven loved learning about cultures and was an avid photographer and self-professed “travel bug.” He always prioritized his family and was known for his humor, kindness, and his commitment to helping and mentoring others. He said prior to his passing that he lived an extraordinary life without regrets. 

Steven is survived by his wife, Nancy; his two children, Abigail and Alexander; his daughter-in law, Marie; his granddaughter, Zadie; and his sister, Lee Wha Sook. 

Steven wanted to see the kindness that was so instrumental to his life replicated for others. In lieu of a memorial service, please add your memories and stories about Steven to this memorial website

Dr. Chough’s son Alex wrote, “When my father first learned of Gallaudet College, he was a young man in a nation attempting to overcome the ravages of war. The very idea of Gallaudet was a beacon of hope that brought purpose and focus to his life. He would be the first to tell you that he would never have succeeded if it were not for the generosity and support of others. He would like nothing more than to know that in his passing, we focus on the many young Deaf students across the globe who are seeking the same type of support; to ensure that the beacon of hope shines brighter than ever.” 

Accordingly, the Chough family encourages contributions to The Dr. Steven, ’61, and Nancy, ’66, Chough Scholarship Fund at Gallaudet University, to provide financial aid to the next generation of international Deaf leaders.

This appreciation was compiled by Robert Weinstock from multiple sources, including Alexander Chough, Steven’s son; Dr. Dae-Kun Kim; and the Gallaudet University Archives.

8 April 2022

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Robert Weinstock

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