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The Chaplinsky family poses outside of the Disability Resources and Educational Services building.
The family of Susan J. Chaplinsky sits on her memorial bench in the center of the Disability Resources and Educational Services building. Her siblings Kathy, Amy, Molly and Pete sat with her plaque.

DRES alum’s posthumous gift takes spotlight: 'I don’t think she ever forgot her debt'


To honor their sister’s time at the University of Illinois, the siblings of Susan Jane Chaplinsky thought a memorial bench in the open-air plaza of Disability Resources and Educational Services would be a fitting tribute. 

Because the work of DRES was a big part of what propelled Chaplinsky, living with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, to become an acclaimed business scholar and beloved instructor. She said so herself.  

“[DRES at Illinois] … put me on a path to achieve the professional success I have attained over the course of my life,” Chaplinsky wrote in her will. “It remains a unique institution for students with disabilities to level the inequities caused by life and health and allows them to achieve a measure of success.  I would be proud to have my name associated with an institution with these goals and aspirations.”

Upon her passing in November 2022, Chaplinsky dedicated a substantial portion of her wealth to the DRES: A $3.4 million estate gift which will support two endowment funds for Illinois students with disabilities. 

The family got to witness the memorial for Chaplinsky at the DRES 75th Anniversary Open House on April 19, surrounded by staff, alumni and visitors. College of Applied Health Sciences Dean Cheryl Hanley-Maxwell gave thanks to the family and to Chaplinsky for her generosity. 

”It’s going to change much of what we can do here at DRES, I can’t thank you guys enough for being willing to be here with us today to celebrate Susan’s commitment to us,” Hanley-Maxwell said. “Susan is an example of many students who have graduated from the University of Illinois who look back on DRES and say, ‘If it weren’t for DRES, I don’t know what I would have done.’” 

‘A lifeline’

Chaplinsky graduated from Illinois in 1975 with her bachelor’s in economics. She went a couple hours north to obtain her MBA and a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago. 

What followed was a stellar academic and teaching career, where Chaplinsky taught finance at the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, and eventually the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where she spent her final 28 years. 

But with her early obstacles, she charted a course her family could’ve never foreseen.  

In sixth grade, Chaplinsky was diagnosed with a severe form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. In a matter of months, Chaplinsky went from being an active, able-bodied preteen to needing a wheelchair to get around day to day. 

Growing up in Palatine, Illinois, a village 30 miles northwest of Chicago, Susan’s sister Kathy would bring her lunches during high school, since Susan couldn’t access the cafeteria with her wheelchair. As Chaplinsky confronted her new health challenges, others began to place unfair limits on her abilities. 

“My sister was always very smart, brilliant, but there was no guidance counselor encouraging her to look at colleges,” Kathy Arter said. 

“Then our parents learned about the program at Illinois, and it was just like a lifeline to them. There was a place that not only could accommodate her, but they wanted her there.”

Illinois, with its wheelchair accessible campus and the Division of Rehabilitation Education Services led by director Tim Nugent, was an opportunity too promising to pass up. After being accepted onto campus, Chaplinsky’s life and confidence transformed, her siblings said. 

Every time they’d visit her at Allen Hall, she was surrounded by friends, going out to bars or movie showings on campus, living a regular student’s life.  

But she took her studies seriously, and Nugent played a hand in that. Chaplinsky “talked a lot about Nugent,” Arter said; he was demanding, and held high expectations for the students he worked with. 

“Some of that, with Susan, she left here with that: ‘They expect me to go on and be a success, I won’t disappoint them,’” Arter said. “I don’t think Susan ever forgot her debt to the university, for that opportunity.” 

An outpouring of support flowed from the UVA campus after Chaplinsky’s passing. Her siblings didn’t always get to see the teaching side of Susan; a memorial event they attended allowed them to see a new side of their sister. 

“The great passion of her life was teaching,” said her sister, Amy Meehan. “She was interested in students, she always rooted for the underdog. She just views this gift as an extension of that: ‘I can help for years to come.’” 

Plenty of the traits they knew well—Chaplinsky’s sports fandom and dry humor, for example—also shined through in their remembrances. 

“She’s funny, she’s brilliant,” sister Molly Gillis said. “I think about all the time, her footprint is ginormous when she had so many things that could’ve limited her reach and they didn’t.” 

The siblings and extended family made a big showing at the DRES Open House. They gratefully packed in around their sister’s newly arrived memorial bench and posed for pictures in the cool spring weather. 

“Maybe somebody sees that bench, and it gives them the confidence, the energy to go forward, to dream big, and to do something they didn’t think they could do,” brother Pete Chaplinsky said. 

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