Feature

Lee Gurel, PhD, has a confession. The well-known psychologist, who donated $150,000 to the American Psychological Foundation for the professional development of high school psychology teachers, didn’t technically graduate from high school. He started college before claiming his diploma. What’s more, during his long career as a clinical psychologist and researcher, he says, he lacked the patience to enjoy teaching.

But that has given Gurel, 83, all the more appreciation for his teachers, from Miss Wilmott, the seventh-grade English teacher who taught him how to write, to John E. Bell, the Clark University psychology professor who introduced him to the field.

“I’m particularly indebted to the schools and teachers that gave me entrée to the cultured, educated kind of life I lead,” Gurel says.

Gurel’s gift will fund two main efforts — $100,000 for teacher professional development over the next decade and $50,000 to update lesson plans for high school psychology courses over the next five years, to be made available by APA’s Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools Committee. (TOPSS members can access the plans online.)

The gift builds on the $80,000 Gurel donated to both APF and Clark University in 2004, which he bolstered with $20,000 in supplementary donations last year. Those donations established the APA/Clark University Workshop for High School Teachers, an annual event first held in 2005. The workshop brings 25 high school psychology teachers to Clark’s Worcester, Mass., campus for three days to learn about the latest developments in psychology and ways to introduce students to research methods.

To complement that effort, some of Gurel’s most recent donation will fund activities such as travel for teachers to attend other conferences, such as APA’s Annual Convention. At the discretion of APA’s Education Directorate staff, some funds might also go toward building networks of psychology teachers at the state level and organizing local conferences.

“His gift will allow teachers to network with each other, and to learn from each other,” says Emily Leary, assistant director of the precollege and undergraduate office in the Education Directorate.

Born in Poland, Gurel came to the United States with his mother when he was 3, arriving by steamship in New York City on Jan. 1, 1930. They joined his father in Worcester, where he was working as a dishwasher and busboy. Eventually, his family owned a small neighborhood grocery store.

As a high school student in 1943, he enrolled in the Clark University summer session. With World War II under way and millions of college-age men in uniform, the school needed students. Gurel stayed for about a year, then enlisted in the Navy in 1944. Two years later, Gurel returned to college, where he took psychology courses with John Bell, an associate professor of psychology who later directed the school’s psychological clinic and helped pioneer family therapy.

Even if a question was “stupid” or a comment uninformed, Gurel says, he never heard Bell put down a student. He admired the way the professor gently steered the discussion back to solid ground. “I distinctly remember thinking, ‘I want to be like Dr. Bell,’” he says.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Clark in 1948, Gurel headed to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., to pursue a doctorate. While there, he signed up for the Veterans Administration psychology trainee program. After a few years in the field, Gurel came to VA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to join the VA’s research office. The VA granted Gurel a leave of absence for a short stint at the American Psychiatric Association that he converted to a 12-year stay. His final full-time position was at the Washington, D.C., VA Hospital as chief of research in mental health and behavioral science.

Since retiring in 1987 and giving up his part-time post as statistical editor for the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1994, Gurel has been attending classes in Spanish, art history, photography and Chinese at Northern Virginia Community College. Studying alongside students who often work full time and have families inspired him to help establish the school’s emergency assistance fund, which helps students with unexpected expenses that might otherwise cause them to drop out.

Gurel has also funded a cash prize for achievement in AP English for a graduating senior in his former high school district. At Clark, Gurel established an award in memory of John Bell for an outstanding graduating senior in psychology, with a parallel prize made to the professor named by the student as most influential in his or her development.

Gurel’s clear commitment to education and philanthropy is appreciated by the American Psychological Foundation, says Executive Director Elisabeth Straus.

“I just want to say how grateful we are to him, for his generosity and his vision, which will advance psychology for years to come,” Straus says.

APA CEO Norman B. Anderson, PhD, says one of the best ways of educating the public on the value of psychology is by working in the schools.

“Dr. Gurel’s generous gifts to APF allow high school psychology teachers to broaden and deepen their skills as psychology instructors, so that they can provide their students with a more sophisticated knowledge of what psychology is all about.”