Western University of Health Sciences celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Harris Family Center for Disability and Health Policy (CDHP) and honored the legacy of Founding Director Brenda Premo, MBA.
The Harris Family CDHP held an open house and dedication ceremony for a permanent display honoring Premo on Aug. 17, 2023, in the CDHP office on WesternU’s Pomona, California campus. Premo joined WesternU in 1998 and retired in 2020.
CDHP Director Marcelle Daniels, MHRD, thanked Premo for allowing WesternU to honor her for her service to WesternU, to California and to our nation. Premo served as director of the California State Department of Rehabilitation during Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration and as the deputy director of the department’s Independent Living Section from 1991-94. President Ronald Reagan tapped her to serve on the National Council on Disability in 1986.
“We honor your legacy as a disability rights advocate and your work establishing disability services at WesternU by showcasing your achievements and your work in a permanent display,” Daniels said. “We think it’s very fitting that Brenda be permanently displayed within our hallowed halls. But more than that, Brenda, we pledge to you that we will continue your work and we will not rest until every stakeholder at WesternU has equal access.”
Premo cut a ceremonial ribbon on the display that visitors to CDHP can view, which includes her biography, photos and commendations and accolades that she earned throughout her career. Several WesternU friends and colleagues offered anecdotes and toasts honoring Premo.
WesternU Provost Paula Crone, DO ’92, remembers when she was just starting to establish COMP-Northwest in Lebanon, Oregon.
“Brenda was reaching out because we were starting up a new location and she wanted to make sure whoever was going to be part of that new location was going to do it right,” Crone said. “She was bound and determined to make sure that happened.”
Crone told Premo, “there is not a person in this room that doesn’t love you. There is not a person in this room that has not been directly impacted by who you are as a person, how you have led your life, the example that you have given every single day of your life to those around you. Your tenacity, your bravery, your courage, your determination, everything that you put into helping to create this center. But above and beyond all that, to help create a better world for all the people who came after you.”
WesternU Senior Vice President of University Student Affairs Beverly Guidry, EdD, thanked CDHP staff for recognizing that Premo deserves this honor. Guidry fondly recalled shopping, going to the spa, and getting ready for special events with Premo. She said Premo’s purpose at WesternU was very clear.
“So Brenda, on behalf of everybody in this room, I just want to thank you for opening our hearts and our minds and our thinking,” Guidry said. “Before you came, I don’t think we had the awareness that we have now about individuals with disabilities. I learned a new vocabulary. I learned that people aren’t bound to wheelchairs, they’re users. Brenda made it very practical. She didn’t preach, she never admonished, she just taught. She taught in simple conversations and then she taught as a professor in some of our colleges.”
WesternU Provost Emeritus Gary Gugelchuk, PhD, quoted “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. “Brenda, we are not now that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth. That which we are, we are. One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” said Gugelchuk, who then offered a toast. “To Brenda, and your unyielding commitment to creating a more inclusive and developed society, and may the Harris Center continue that endowment for many, many centuries to come.”
CDHP Administrative Associate LaDonna Cash said Premo has been an advocate for people with disabilities for most of her life, and she still is today.
“As a child, Brenda was told because of her disability, she would never amount to anything. She soon proved her teachers wrong. She did not define her capabilities by her disabilities. She taught me to never define anyone about their disability,” Cash said. “The biggest thing Brenda taught me during my time here at WesternU is that the students always come first, and I still believe that today.”
Today, CDHP is celebrating 25 years of serving students with disabilities here at WesternU, Cash said.
“(Founding) President Dr. Philip Pumerantz convinced her in 1998 to come to WesternU to increase the number of qualified individuals with disabilities to pursue careers in the health professions and empowering people with disabilities to become more vocal and active participants in their health care through WesternU’s establishment of our center,” Cash said. “Brenda retired in 2020, and she still continues to teach me about people with disabilities. I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for Brenda.”
Premo said she was treated like a developmentally disabled child until the sixth grade, when a teacher made her show and justify what she could do. The same applied at WesternU.
“My job was to get people with disabilities to have the ability to be equal, either where if they can’t do the thing, that’s fine as long as it’s what they can’t do. Or they can do the thing. And as a result, not only this school, but many others have become aware that it isn’t what the name of the condition is, or what the person has, but can they, in reality, compete for that job. It may require accommodations, and usually does,” Premo said. “But when you equalize the road, can they do the job? And that’s what I have believed in my whole life.”
She thanked everyone for attending the dedication.
“The important thing I want to leave you with is never judge a person by how they look, how they get around, what their race is, or gender, because if we can show what we can do, everyone will grow and understand the importance of what achievements are made,” Premo said.