Life Stories

Life Stories: Psychologist Row studied forgiveness, but never needed forgiving

CorrespondentOctober 6, 2013 

Kathleen Row during a 2012 trip to Switzerland. Row died last month.

COURTESY OF THE ROW FAMILY

  • Kathleen Anne Lawler Row

    Born: May 30, 1947, in Pittsburgh

    Family: Married Stephen E. Row of Greenville in 2004; had one son, Andrew Lawler, from a previous marriage

    Education: Graduates from Classen High School in Oklahoma City in 1964; attends Grinnell College in Iowa before graduating from Oklahoma City University with a B.A. in psychology in 1967; earns a master’s degree in child psychology at the University of Iowa in 1969; earns a doctorate in experimental psychology and psychophysiology from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1974; completes a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University in 1975

    Career: Teaches at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for more than 30 years before coming to East Carolina University in 2006 to head the Department of Psychology. She worked at ECU until 2012, when she retired, partly because of her illness.

    Died: Sept. 21 in Greenville

Forgiveness is often described as a change of heart. As a psychologist, Kathleen Row suspected that this quaint saying might be literally true.

As a pioneer in the health psychology movement, her research helped establish the understanding that those who are more forgiving, both in nature and behavior, are less likely to struggle with depression, stress and elevated blood pressure. They are also more likely to partake in healthy behaviors, have more social support and possess more autonomy in their lives.

Row earned her doctorate at the UNC-Chapel Hill. She returned to North Carolina in 2006 after more than 30 years away to head the Department of Psychology at East Carolina University. Under her direction, the school brought to fruition a long-planned psychology doctoral program, recruiting world-class researchers and tenaciously securing additional funding.

Row’s friends and family say that though she might have been well-versed in the art of forgiveness, she rarely had to use that expertise on her own behalf. She died last month at the age of 66.

Row, an only child, was born in Pittsburgh to parents who valued education highly. The family moved a number of times before Kathleen landed in Oklahoma for high school. It was here, at 15, she met her husband-to-be, Steve Row. He was her first boyfriend, but it would be 42 years before they were wed.

They lost touch when Steve Row’s family moved away before their senior year, and both went on to marry others. She reached out to him in 2001 after coming across his contact information online, and they soon started where they’d left off.

“She was just a good person,” Steve Row said.

Part of that goodness was demonstrated in the way she celebrated others. She was reserved in nature, and had notoriously high standards for her students. But when it came to friendship she never held back.

For longtime friend Mary Sundstrom, it was Row’s gentle, determined devotion to her passions and relationships that made her so enriching to be with. Sundstrom likened Row to a cleric, offering wisdom without judgment, always willing to take the first step in remedying a disagreement or misunderstanding.

“She really had a depth of longing to be on good terms with the world and herself,” Sundstrom said.

It was the same at work.

“She just rejoiced in the success and the accomplishments of the people she worked with,” Steve Row said.

When colleague Sam Sears was awarded the prestigious O. Max Gardner Award this year, she was beside herself with pride and joy. Row was nominated by ECU for the same award a few years earlier, but did not receive it. Sears was Row’s first major hire at ECU, and he said that working with Row was the reason he agreed to leave his previous post for the fledgling program.

“While many researchers were looking at forgiveness, she was among the first people to look at the health effects of forgiveness,” Sears said of her early career. “Her vision for the program, her vision for health psychology, was a theme throughout her life.”

At the first faculty meeting she led as chairwoman at ECU, Row emphasized that the work they were doing was essential to improving the lives of real people. Psychologists are in short supply in Eastern North Carolina and the clinic that opened during her tenure, the PASS Clinic for Psychological Assessment and Specialty Services, was just one of the ways she hoped the program would provide resources to the community.

“We have much to which to aspire; if we even get part of the way, we will be able to look back with pride on our careers, on our department, and on our service to ECU, and the citizens of North Carolina,” she told her colleagues.

Row was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in late 2011. She underwent surgery in early 2012, as well as a few rounds of chemo before deciding she could no longer keep her post as chairwoman of the psychology department at ECU. She had been hoping to retire, to see more of the world with her beau. Before she became too ill to travel, they took a “bucket list” trip to Switzerland. Steve Row said it was the best trip of her life.

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