Samuel T. Gladding, a universally beloved figure in the counseling profession, died Dec. 6, 2021, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was 76.
Gladding held many positions and titles throughout his illustrious career, but the role that he perhaps embodied most naturally was as a sort of unofficial goodwill ambassador for the counseling profession. As much as he was revered for his considerable counseling skill and scholarship, he was even more widely known for his kind, caring and generous spirit, his ability to engage and connect with everyone he encountered, and his desire to make people laugh and feel valued.
“Sam was a gentleman and a scholar,” said Courtland C. Lee, a fellow and past president of the American Counseling Association, a past president of the International Association for Counselling, and a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. “Not only will his scholarly and association leadership be missed, but his humor, humility and basic human kindness as well. The counseling profession has lost a giant, and I have lost a dear friend. Sam Gladding was in the truest sense of the word, a counselor.”
Gladding served in a variety of leadership roles, including as a past president of ACA (2004-2005), the American Association of State Counseling Boards, Chi Sigma Iota, the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, the Association for Specialists in Group Work (ASGW), and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES). He was also a past chair of the ACA Foundation, a past editor of the Journal for Specialists in Group Work, and a fellow of ACA and ASGW.
Since 1990, Gladding had been a professor in the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. From 1990 until 1997, he served as the assistant to the president for special projects at Wake Forest and was the associate provost from 1997 to 2007.
Gladding was a prolific author and presenter. By his count, he had written 18 books (including eight that ended up having multiple editions), 32 book chapters, 92 articles in refereed counseling journals and 45 poems in refereed counseling journals. As he had noted on his Amazon author page, Gladding “grew up thinking I wanted to be a minister. However, at Yale Divinity School, I fell in love with counseling. As the old adage goes: ‘People plan, God laughs.’”
In addition to a master’s degree in religion from Yale, Gladding earned his bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in counseling from Wake Forest. He earned a doctorate in human development and family studies with cognates in counselor education and psychology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Prior to joining Wake Forest’s counseling department, Gladding had academic appointments at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Fairfield University in Connecticut and Rockingham Community College in North Carolina. He also served as the director of children’s services at the Rockingham County Mental Health Center for five years.
Donna Henderson, professor emeritus at Wake Forest, was one of Gladding’s closest colleagues and friends in the counseling profession. She recalls a time at an ACA conference when Gladding’s flight was delayed, which meant that he was going to be a little late for a task force meeting he was supposed to lead. He called Henderson and asked her to “get things going” until he arrived.
“I found the room and called the meeting to order, explaining that Sam would be joining us later,” remembered Henderson, a past president of Chi Sigma Iota and ACES. “It was a packed room with some ‘observers’ sitting in the back — I had totally underestimated the gravity of the mission of this task force. For me, when in doubt about what to do, break the group into smaller groups and have them summarize. So that is what we did. It was about 30 minutes of chaos [until] Sam arrived. It took him only five minutes to get things back on track. People went back to their seats, and the real work began. He did not raise his voice or clap his hands, but the group members paid attention immediately. He was calm, patient and focused. He believed the meeting was going to be productive, and it was.
“The next week, Sam and I were chatting, and I asked him how he managed that transformation. He said this and that, not really clarifying much, and I stopped him, saying ‘You don’t know, do you?’ He grinned and said, ‘No, not really.’
“He was so masterful and the skills so much a part of him that he could lead an effective group effortlessly. As we worked together in the counseling department, I had experienced many faculty meetings as well as other group activities with Sam leading but had not appreciated his extraordinary abilities until then.
“Also noteworthy was the way Sam led because it mirrored the way he lived. He had a contagious optimism and the capacity to see, or create, humor in most situations. He worked hard at whatever he did, and he was generous with his attention and praise. He smiled often and accomplished so much. He was not only the quintessential group leader but also a superlative human being.”
David Kaplan, a past president of ACA and the former chief professional officer for the association, worked closely with Gladding on a variety of initiatives. “Sam was one of the nicest, kindness and gentlest people I have ever known,” Kaplan said. “He would do anything for ACA and the profession of counseling. Whenever we needed a keynote speaker to draw big crowds — whether it be at a critical conference halfway around the world or a special event at the ACA conference — we would ask Sam, and he would always drop everything and say yes. It was fun at ACA conferences to see attendees get that deer-in-the-headlights look when they got on an elevator and realized that they were riding next to Sam. You could see their thoughts as if there was a balloon over their heads: ‘I can’t believe I am standing next to THE Dr. Samuel Gladding!’”
Gladding was justifiably proud of citing that he had delivered presentations on counseling on every continent except for Antarctica. He sometimes followed that statement with one of his much-loved punchlines: “where I have heard the penguins are not that interested in counseling.”
It was on such a trip that Kaplan experienced one of his favorite and most humorous memories of Gladding. “Before our trip to an international ACA counseling conference, Claire [Gladding’s wife] called me and asked if I could find a tailor near the venue so that Sam could get a new suit,” Kaplan recalled. “I was happy to oblige, and so Sam and I found ourselves in a Singapore fitting room getting endless measurements for our pants and jackets. Sam was clearly out of his comfort zone and as a distraction did what he did best — tell jokes and sing songs. I will never forget the look on the tailor’s face as Sam, wearing only his boxers, serenaded him.”
“I will long remember the discussions I had with Sam about current and future directions of the counseling profession,” Kaplan continued. “Each time that I do, I will be forever grateful that Sam Gladding graced my life.”
Gladding’s sense of humor, smile and optimistic nature were widely known throughout the counseling profession and beyond. Even so, he didn’t attempt to avoid, negate, downplay or explain away the difficult circumstances or suffering of others. He worked with the Red Cross as a mental health responder after 9/11 to provide psychological first aid to the families of those killed in the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. He also worked with the faculty and students at Virginia Tech after the mass shooting on that campus that left more than 30 people dead in 2007. In the mid-1990s, Gladding led a service-learning trip with a dozen Wake Forest students to do work in the homes of Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.
“Sometimes in life, you get the chance to work with someone who is caring, intelligent and thoughtful. There are other times when you may work with someone for whom you develop a lasting friendship. I feel so fortunate to have received all of that from my knowing Sam Gladding,” said Richard Yep, ACA CEO, “Despite his credentials and many contributions to the field of counseling, his genuine interest in people made him ‘one of us’ rather than the giant he was in the profession.”
“In addition to Sam being a terrific ACA President, his contributions to the counseling profession through his writing, consultation and presentations will continue to make an impact for many years,” Yep continued. “He was one of the most unassuming presidents we have had — always curious, a desire to truly listen to people’s concerns, and a keen sense of humor punctuated by his love of puns and just the right song lyrics for any occasion. He even established an ACA award called the Unsung Heroes for those who work in the trenches and do not receive the gratitude they deserve. He was that kind of guy.”
Gladding is survived by his wife of 35 years, Claire Gladding; sons Ben Gladding (and wife, Sara), Nate Gladding and Tim Gladding; a grandson, Leo Templeman Gladding; a brother, Russell Gladding; and a sister, Peggy Smith.
A memorial service was scheduled for Jan. 29 in Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest. Memorial donations may be made to the Gladding Memorial Scholarship or the Samuel T. Gladding Endowment for the Department of Counseling, P.O. Box 7227, Winston-Salem, NC, 27109 or online at giving.wfu.edu.