Thursday, September 22, 2022

Gary Sasso, who dedicated more than two decades of his life to the University of Iowa College of Education as a special education professor and visionary leader, died on March 27, 2022. He was 71.

Sasso earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in special education from the University of Kansas, where he received training in the field of applied behavior analysis. He dedicated his more than 30-year career as a teacher, researcher, faculty member, and leader to improving the lives of children with emotional and behavioral disorders, especially those with autism spectrum disorder.

Side profile of former special education faculty member, Gary Sasso
Gary Sasso

During his tenure at Iowa, Sasso made substantial contributions through his research, leadership, collegiality, and kindness. While at Iowa, he gained full professorship with joint appointments in the College of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning and in pediatrics in the Carver College of Medicine. He also served as chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, which later became the Department of Teaching and Learning.

Sasso was also the former dean of Lehigh’s College of Education, where he served from 2008 until his retirement in 2018, and he served on the UI College of Education’s Advisory Board for many years, providing crucial insight, advocacy, and vision.

“Gary was a trusted friend and outstanding leader here at Iowa and at Lehigh,” says UI College of Education Dean Daniel Clay, who described Sasso as a colleague, mentor, and friend. “I know he often spoke highly of our college and the people here. He was always looking for ways to help. He will be missed by many, but his impact will live on.”

Former colleagues and students note Sasso’s rare blend of academic prowess and exemplary leadership style that co-existed with a sharp wit and a wacky sense of humor. Sasso could vacillate from serious scholar to consummate comedian with the greatest of ease.

Associate professor emeritus Kathryn “Kit” Gerken was one of dozens of family members, friends, and former colleagues and students who shared memories and messages with Sasso on a digital board as a celebration of his life while he was in palliative care, letting him know what a profound impact he had on their lives. 

Gerkin says Sasso added so much to the UI College of Education “as an irreverent, irrepressible, irregular, irreplaceable force. You brought smiles and laughter as well as knowledge and action to our work.”

He was a prolific researcher, co-authoring nearly 100 scholarly publications and more than 125 conference presentations. He was honored on numerous occasions by his peers, most recently with the Award for Outstanding Leadership in Emotional and Behavioral Disorders from the Midwest Symposium for Leadership in Behavioral Disorders.

Sasso also was a member of several professional associations, including the Council for Exceptional Children, the Autism Society of America, and the Association for Behavior Analysis. 

Sasso is survived by his wife, alumna and former UI associate clinical school psychology professor, Christine G. Novak (Ph.D. '92), and their son, Spencer.

See more from the Annual Report