BEHIND THE ALFRED DIMARINO AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN PEDIATRICS: AN INTERVIEW WITH ALUMNA JEAN VAN HAAFTEN

Posted by vanessa on July 24, 2017

By Vanessa Corwin

The slide illustrating the award and its recipient that is shown each year at the Physical Therapy Program’s Convocation reads: “Established in memory of Alfred DiMarino, husband of program alumna Jean van Haaften, distinguished pediatric physical therapist”. The award recognizes a student who has shown “a commitment to a career in pediatrics, academic excellence in the required pediatric course work, academic excellence in the pediatric specialization track course, clinical excellence in the pediatric internship, and an affinity for clinical teaching.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Jean van Haaften, PT, MA, MACP, when she returned from living in Italy for more than 40 years.  She is an alumna of the Program in Physical Therapy from the Class of 1967, who established the award in 2007 after her husband Alfred’s death. She provided the backstory on how this award came to be.

Jean and Alfred met in Germany where Alfred was stationed with the US Army and Jean was studying at the Goethe Institute in Blaubeuren. Jean returned to New York and began her studies with the Physical Therapy program. Alfred followed her there and studied at Columbia’s School of Library Science; they married in 1969.

After her graduation from the Program, Jean stayed on at Columbia as a PT.  At that time, under program director Mary Callahan, they were exploring the idea of team teaching. Jean became part of a team. Alfred had some teaching experience and took an interest in Jean’s teaching, offering advice on “making it fun”. He suggested using humor and putting clinical concepts in the context of human experiences (e.g. she was teaching a wheelchair course, and they made up a story about a journalist from Vietnam who had lost a leg but wanted to return to the war zone!)  Jean ultimately began work as a pediatric physical therapist.

Shortly after they married, Alfred responded to the need for librarians in Italy to catalog books following the devastating flood of 1966. The couple went to live in Florence, Italy. Jean treated patients but at that time, she recalls,  physical therapy was “more of a concept than fact”. She eventually helped establish and taught in the first official physical therapy school in Italy, later becoming a psychotherapist for children in addition to working with disabled children and their families.

Alfred joined the Bologna School of Advanced International Studies as head librarian and Italian literature professor; Jean then worked with children for the National Health Service of Italy.  Alfred was much loved by his students. Although Jean and Alfred never had children of their own, they both loved being with them.  Alfred enjoyed them, Jean recalls, “because he loved to play, laugh and have fun.”  At Christmas he would dress as Santa Claus, and he gained a reputation as “the first un-intimidating Santa”.  His love of children and of the advancement of knowledge inspired the award.

Following his death in 2007, Jean received many notes from friends and colleagues.  One wrote that his way of listening “made me feel like the smartest person in the world”.  She set up the award to honor his deep interest in both children and culture. “You could say he had a way with children and a way with knowledge.”

Jean concluded, “I hope the winners of the DiMarino Award will each approach his or her studies and work by listening closely to the children and having fun with them, too.”

The DiMarinos with one of their Italian friends

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