Shirley Forsythe, trailblazing Tulsa sign-language interpreter, dies at 80

Shirley Forsythe 1934-2015

Shirley Forsythe, trailblazing Tulsa sign-language interpreter, dies at 80

By TIM STANLEY World Staff Writer

To Shirley Forsythe, it seemed like a true sign from God.

Watching closely as an interpreter signed for a group of deaf members at her church, the little girl found herself wondering if she, too, could learn to do it.

So afterward, she volunteered.

That was how it all started for Forsythe.

Beginning with “Jesus Loves Me,” and learning a new song each week, by age 8 she was directing the church’s song service for the deaf.

From there, as she embraced serving the hearing-impaired as a life calling, her talent and passion for interpreting would only grow.

Shirley Rae Forsythe, a trailblazing Tulsa sign-language interpreter, former church minister and onetime legislative candidate, died Jan. 15. She was 80.

A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. Jan. 29 at First United Methodist Church. Freeman Harris Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

Able to “talk faster with her hands than she did with her mouth,” Forsythe had no trouble keeping up as an interpreter, said her daughter, Karen Frates.

“If they picked up the pace,” she said, “she picked up right along with them.”

From Tulsa’s Faith Tabernacle, where she first learned to sign as a child, Forsythe would go on to attend and provide interpreting at First Baptist and First United Methodist churches.

Everywhere she went, Frates added, hearing-impaired church-goers followed her.

“At one time, she was really the only one doing what she was doing.”

A Bixby native and Tulsa Central High School graduate, Forsythe, born Shirley Alexander, was originally ordained as an Assembly of God minister specializing in serving the deaf.

At a time when options for the hearing-impaired were few, Forsythe started a small church for the deaf and camps for deaf children. For many years she also volunteered with Oklahoma School for the Deaf in Sulphur, teaching and organizing plays and other activities.

Forsythe also interpreted on local television, including in the 1960s for the Rev. Warren Hultgren of First Baptist’s “Moments of Meditation” series.

When it came to her cause, Forsythe brought her family on board, Frates said. Learning to sign at an early age, though she would never become as skilled as her mother, she said she remembers picking up deaf families and taking them to church.

Serving the deaf “was my whole life growing up,” she said.

Although Forsythe eventually left formal ministry and became a real estate broker, serving the deaf community remained her main life mission, and she interpreted at everything from court cases to musical programs. A leader as well in efforts to create more services in Tulsa, Forsythe was a co-founder of Tulsa Speech and Hearing Association — now Total Source for Hearing-loss and Access, which provides interpreters and other services — and Happy Hands Education Center.

Forsythe was also active in politics with the local Republican Party.

In the 1990s, she ran unsuccessfully for state office, once against Sen. Penny Williams in District 33 and twice for the District 66 seat against Rep. Russ Roach.

Politics would be responsible for one of her favorite moments in serving the deaf. When former President George H.W. Bush made a campaign stop once in Tulsa, she served as his sign-language interpreter.

Among various community interests, Forsythe was past president of Rotary Club of Tulsa. She also served on numerous boards, including for Cancer Treatment Center of America and the University of Tulsa nursing school.

With Forsythe’s health declining in recent years, communicating verbally had become more difficult, her daughter said. But she retained her ability to sign, and the two used it often together.

“She would still correct me if I got something wrong,” Frates said, laughing.

She added that their final exchange, fittingly, was a true signing off.

“The last thing I told her was ‘I love you’ (in sign language),” Frates said.

Forsythe was preceded in death by her son, Rodney Kenslow; and a sister, Sue Wilkerson.

Survivors include four children, Karen Frates, Vickie Ford, Julie Wegner and Alexander Forsythe; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Tim Stanley 918-581-8385

[email protected]


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