Dorothy Chiyoko Sueoka Casterline, ’58 & H-’22, passed away on August 8, 2023. She was 95 years old. 

Along with the late Carl Croneberg, ’55, Dot, as she was known, conducted much of the painstaking field research that led to the formal recognition of American Sign Language in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She and Mr. Croneberg were awarded honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees during Gallaudet’s 152nd Commencement in May 2022.

Dorothy Chiyoko Sueoka was born on April 27, 1928 to Toshiba and Toyiko Sueoka, in the city of Honolulu in the territory of Hawai’i. She began her education in the public school system. At age 14, she became deaf, possibly from mastoiditis. She then was educated orally at the Diamond Head School for the Deaf and Blind, which is now the Hawai’i School for the Deaf and Blind. 

Up until the early 1950s, deaf people were not allowed to drive in Hawai’i. With the assistance of influential members of the National Association of the Deaf, Dot, while still a teenager, helped convince the Honolulu police department to remove this restriction.

Black and white photo of a woman looking at camera sideways with short black hair, glasses, and pearls, smiling.

After graduating from high school, Dot worked for three years, then enrolled at Gallaudet College, where she completed the requirements for her bachelor’s degree in English in three years. She was the first Native Hawai’ian student to receive a Gallaudet degree. As a student, she wrote for The Buff and Blue newspaper and was a member of the Delta Epsilon Sorority. During her senior year, she was the first and only student to be elected to the new, faculty-organized Phi Alpha Pi Honor Society established on campus the previous year. 

During Dot’s senior year, noted linguist and Gallaudet English professor William C. Stokoe, H-’88,  recruited her to collaborate with him in the first scientific study of deaf people using sign language. Stokoe valued her sharp eye for detail, which made her indispensable in transcribing signs. Little did Dot know at the time that she was taking part in a study that would eventually lead to nothing short of a renaissance in the history of the deaf community – the universal recognition that sign languages are true, natural, structured languages, not merely gestures, as most linguists believed up until this revolutionary study. 

After Dot graduated, she joined the faculty of Gallaudet’s Department of English. She balanced her workload between teaching and working with Gallaudet’s new, grant-funded Linguistics Research Laboratory, meeting with her fellow researchers on Sundays. The result was the landmark 1965 publication, A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, compiled by Dr. Stokoe, Ms. Casterline, and Mr. Croneberg.

Another significant outgrowth of their efforts was the transformation, in 1971, of Gallaudet’s Linguistic Research Laboratory into an autonomous research facility. This in turn was the genesis of the world-renowned Department of Linguistics that was founded a decade later, training students to carry forward the mantle of sign language research.

Dot was known as a quiet observer who eschewed praise and attention, but it was clear to her coworkers that she was a brilliant, albeit unassuming, scholar who was able to utilize the technology she created, along with her strong organizational skills, to bring together all the multiple components to make the project whole.

In her spare time, Dot wrote and published poetry and short stories. 

Dot is survived by her two daughters-in-law, Mary Teresa Casterline-Heron (Mike), and Renae Ester Casterline, and three grandchildren, Anna Teresa Casterline (Elena), Kay Michelle Casterline, and Karis Renae Ziesing (Zack). She was predeceased by her husband of over 50 years, Dr. James Larkin Casterline, ’59, and sons Jonathan Paul Casterline and Rex Larkin Casterline. She will be buried alongside her husband at Saint Michael Lutheran Church in Irmo, South Carolina. The family will hold a graveside memorial service in the near future.

Memorial contributions may be made to the newly-established Stokoe, Croneberg, and Casterline Linguistics Fund at Gallaudet University, which will support international students who wish to study sign language, primarily focused on graduate linguistics majors.

Read the New York Times obituary.

This appreciation was compiled from several sources, including Pamela Wright, ’98, a faculty member in the Linguistics program in the School of Language, Education, and Culture; Carey Ballard, ’19; Professor Wright’s students who advocated for Dorothy Casterline and Carl Croneberg to be awarded honorary degrees; Dorothy Casterline’s honorary degree citation; the Gallaudet University Archives; and the Casterline family.

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