by Sarah M. Wells, Managing Editor, Weatherhead School of Management
Hillary Clinton is widely known for her extensive government experience. But Suzanne Cromlish of Statesville, NC, may have Clinton beat in one category. As an expert in sign language, Cromlish has signed for five U.S. presidents, as well as mayors, governors, senators and movie stars.
Cromlish, a PhD student in the Doctor of Management program at the Weatherhead School of Management, was at it again Thursday, as she signed for Clinton during an appearance at Case Western Reserve University.
A combination of personal curiosity and the circumstances at-hand has played a significant role in Cromlish’s life. Her journey into interpreting for the deaf community began before American Sign Language (ASL) was an official language. Forty or so deaf people attended Cromlish’s church in Salisbury, NC, when she was 15 years old, and only one person there could help interpret for them during Sunday services.
“I complained about being bored at church,” Cromlish laughs, “so my mom encouraged me to help.”
Cromlish learned sign language over a couple of years. One day shortly after she learned ASL, the mayor of Salisbury was going to give a speech. Cromlish noticed that no one was there to interpret for the deaf community and called the mayor’s office to volunteer to sign for him at his public events. That was the beginning of her volunteer efforts in public offices.
Ten years later, the White House called.
Among her many public interpretations, Cromlish has signed for George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton twice, and Hillary Clinton twice. Always as a volunteer, she is able to interpret for both political parties because she is a registered independent. As an interpreter, Cromlish takes an oath to use the exact language at an event, even if she disagrees with a person’s political position.
Very little preparation is provided for interpreters at public events. “It’s all done ad lib,” Cromlish says, “though sometimes a list of printed names is provided in advance, and I do ask for song lyrics if a song is going to be sung in case I can’t understand the words.”
Once, on Bill Clinton’s campaign trail, Cromlish found herself on stage with Jimmy Buffett before Clinton was to appear. “I panicked as he started singing ‘Margaritaville’ and ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise,’” says Cromlish, “How am I supposed to interpret this?! But there in the audience was a guy mouthing the words as Buffett performed,” and it was by reading his lips that she was able to sign the lyrics.
It was by fate that Cromlish happened to be traveling from North Carolina to Cleveland this week for the Doctor of Management residency, when Hillary Clinton announced her plan to speak at Case Western Reserve a few days prior to her appearance. Cromlish contacted the woman in charge of Clinton’s fundraising campaign to see if Clinton had an interpreter for her event. By Wednesday afternoon, Cromlish was meeting with Secret Service to prepare for Thursday morning.
When Cromlish met with Clinton on Thursday morning, she made a point to bring up her research in the Doctor of Management program. Ironically, Cromlish had heard Clinton speak a month earlier about supporting democracy at work, specifically employee-owned companies. This is the focus of Cromlish’s research in the Doctor of Management program.
“I knew I would regret it if I didn’t speak up,” Cromlish says, “We’ve all heard the word ‘no.’ I knew I had to say something before Clinton left the room. You never know what might happen, and when we lay our heads on our pillow at night we have to feel satisfied with what we’ve done—that we’ve done everything we could that day.”
Cromlish was drawn to the Doctor of Management program at Weatherhead because of its emphasis on thinking outside the box to pursue a compelling problem of practice. She also appreciates the program’s model of servant leadership. The cultivation of this mentality in the program helped motivate Cromlish to pick up the phone and call the campaign fundraiser for Clinton last week. That same curiosity and passion drives Cromlish’s research into employee-owned companies and empowering the 99%.
“When I told her [Clinton] about my research, her eyes got really big,” says Cromlish. Afterward, Clinton’s press secretary took down her contact information. “Who knows where that might lead?”
Learn more about the PhD and Doctor of Management programs at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.