Marcella M. Meyer dies at 84; prominent deaf advocate

Marcella M. Meyer, a prominent advocate for the deaf who fought to expand civil rights and establish social services through the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness, an advocacy group she helped found in 1969 and ran for almost three decades, has died. She was 84.

Meyer died May 26 at Kaiser Permanente Anaheim Medical Center of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, said her daughter Coleen Ashly.

The activist played a key role in establishing a statewide telephone service that relayed messages between the hearing and the hearing-impaired and led to the development of a nationwide system, according to the agency.

She also was instrumental in opening up jury service in Los Angeles County to the deaf and hard of hearing in 1981. When the county balked at providing sign language interpreters for jurors, she again challenged the system, and a corps of full-time court interpreters was formed.

Roz Rosen, director of the National Center on Deafness at Cal State Northridge, called Meyer “visionary, radical, straight-shooting, compassionate and caring.”

“She conceptualized the consumer-based community service centers serving deaf and hard-of-hearing people and created the statewide network much respected and revered by so many, within and outside of California,” Rosen told The Times in an e-mail. “Her energy, enthusiasm and empathy were boundless.”

Deaf since contracting scarlet fever at 6, Meyer arrived in California in 1966 as a passenger in a Ford driven from Missouri by her then-teenage daughter, Coleen. Meyer would not learn to drive until 1968, the same year she earned her high school diploma, at 43, and began working as a teacher’s aide.

A year later -- in a corner of a United Way office in Los Angeles -- Meyer volunteered to operate a much-needed information line that used a teletypewriter to connect the deaf to social services. The pilot project grew out of research partly done by her third husband, Leonard Meyer, a deaf teacher who had surveyed the needs of the deaf community as a graduate student at CSUN.

By 1975, the project had grown into a thriving nonprofit state-funded agency. It now coordinates the social service needs of the deaf and hard of hearing in 10 California counties. Meyer served as the group’s chief executive from 1975 to 1998.

Colleagues called the outspoken Meyer their “deaf warrior.”

When KCET-TV Channel 28 started airing a captioned version of ABC News at 11:30 p.m., Meyer said the move smacked of “tokenism.”

“Who wants to stay up that late? Deaf people are no different from anyone else,” she told The Times in 1977.

Her promotion of closed captioning in the 1970s led to its widespread adoption, according to the agency.

John Arce, her former assistant who serves on the agency’s board, said she “was hard-charging and had an inherent authority. . . . She traveled such a long distance just by her wits. They were formidable.”

She was born Marcella Mae Gulick in Kansas City, Mo., on May 14, 1925, the youngest of six children of James Gulick, a factory worker and farmer, and his wife, Augusta.

As a high school sophomore, she dropped out to provide postsurgical care for her mother and eventually worked in factories. She first learned sign language at 18.

As a military wife, Meyer had lived in California and longed to return, her daughter said. When she did, it was as a twice-divorced single mother of three. Her third marriage also would end in divorce.

When the agency opened a community center for the deaf in the late 1990s in Eagle Rock, Meyer considered it the “pièce de résistance” of her accomplishments, her daughter said.

The center houses the agency’sheadquarters and includes apartments for low-income deaf seniors. Meyer, who lived in Anaheim Hills, stayed there with friends the weekend before she died.

In addition to her daughter Coleen of Ojai, Meyer is survived by daughters Jamalee Plank of Herington, Kan., and Michele Balfe of Fullerton; a brother, Herbert Gulick of Kansas City, Mo.; five grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

Services have been held. Her family suggests donating to the Marcella M. Meyer Scholarship Fund at the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness,