IU East professor honors son by establishing scholarship to benefit students pursuing medicine

Robert Lafuze was small in stature, but left a large imprint in his inspiring journey through life.

portrait of Joan Lafuze

Joan Esterline Lafuze, professor of biology, at IU East. Lafuze and her daughters have established a scholarship in memory of her son, Robert. The scholarship will help students who are pursuing a degree from the IU East School of Natural Science and Mathematics with a hope of going into medicine.

He had an extrovert’s big smile, a big taste for classic rock music and a big reputation for helping others.

He also had schizophrenia.

The mental disorder causes people to interpret reality abnormally and requires a lifetime of treatments. It is incurable, but treatments can help mitigate the symptoms.

Schizophrenia started for Robert at age 18 and complicated his everyday life from then forward.

One of its well-known negative effects is a life span that averages 25 years less than the general population. Sadly, that was the case with Robert, too. He was 55 when he died of a pulmonary embolism on March 1, 2019.

Robert’s mother, Joan Esterline Lafuze (Ph.D.), a professor of biology at Indiana University East, explains that his psychotic break started after he and his late father, Ralph, were involved in a car accident. At the time Robert was a senior at Hagerstown High School.

He already had struggled with some learning disabilities in school after being a tiny, full-term newborn (3 pounds, 14 ounces) who was not expected to live. He was a cute, inquisitive boy who was a strong reader and writer and an avid music lover, his mother says.

He enjoyed listening to The Beatles, KISS, Heart, ACDC, Rush and Diana Ross.

Robert’s love for music will carry on forever. In fact, he was buried while wearing headphones.

image of a front book cover written by Joan Lafuze

IU East Professor of Biology, Joan Esterline Lafuze, recently wrote a book about her son, Robert, and his life and experience with schizophrenia. The book is available June 18.

“After his break with reality, his music became even more important to him,” Joan Lafuze recalls.

No matter how many good and bad days or painful procedures and hospital stays, schizophrenia never silenced Robert’s voice for speaking out and helping others.

Lafuze’s son didn’t want his struggles hushed up. She could never forget his words: “Mom, if anyone can learn what this is like, please talk and talk and keep on talking.”

Lafuze has worked at IU East for more than 30 years and has taught classes at the majority of Indiana University’s campuses. She has high praise for the student-centered instruction here.

“I truly believe that IU East is unmatched in teaching at Indiana University,” she says.

Her son’s legacy and her love for IU East led her to endow the new Robert Lawrence Lafuze Scholarship with a gift of $25,000. She is joined in that endeavor by her daughters Jeannette Ogborn, Leanne Lafuze (Lighty) and Mary Comer.

The scholarship is established in time to culminate Indiana University’s Bicentennial Celebration this June, IU East enters its 50th anniversary year. IU East will postpone the anniversary celebration until July 1, 2021, based on the coronavirus health and safety guidelines.

The scholarship honors Robert and the physicians who cared for him and his family. It is designed to award a minimum of $1,000 each year and help students who are striving toward careers in a medical field.

“I hope that the scholarship assistance … can be used as a recruiting tool in high schools to attract seniors to consider coming to IU East in one of the pre-medicine programs in Natural Science and Mathematics,” Lafuze says.

IU East Chancellor Kathy Girten said Lafuze has been an influential faculty member at IU East. She has participated in the development of academic programs, served as director and advisor for Women’s & Gender Studies, and is the recipient of several university teaching awards.

“We are honored that Professor Lafuze has chosen to remember her son, Robert, and recognize her connection to IU East by establishing a scholarship in his name,” Chancellor Girten said. “Providing a scholarship for students who are interested in pursuing a career in medicine is an excellent way to carry on Robert’s legacy to educate and to take care of others, and to thank those who cared for him. We thank Joan, Jeannette, Leanne, and Mary, for their gift that will benefit IU East students for years to come.”

Perhaps one of the recipients will open the door to more understanding and better treatments for those who suffer from schizophrenia.

The endowment is established at the same time Lafuze remembers her only son through a new book, Dad Named Me Robert: Let’s Talk About Mental Illness, published today (June 18). The cover features a photo of Robert wearing a wide smile.

“I can almost hear Robert saying, ‘Let’s Talk About Mental Illness,’ because he truly wanted people to understand,” Lafuze says. “When any illness is ‘hush, hush,’ we don’t talk about that. It is stigmatizing.”

She tells about his journey through schools and medical facilities in the deeply touching book. She tells how Robert beat big odds to simply survive after birth. She tells how he got his name and his nickname, Pinmaker (more on that later).

She tells about schizophrenia’s effects on Robert and his family and the many misunderstandings and gray areas about the disorder that are found in the medical and legal worlds.

IU East Vice Chancellor for External Affairs Jason Troutwine said the campus shares Lafuze’s hope that the scholarship will help bring awareness to mental health issues while benefitting students as they pursue an NSM degree from IU East.

“While I did not personally know Robert, it’s very clear that he was an inspiration to many” Troutwine said. “In our discussions, Joan shared that Robert had a kind heart, that he was an avid reader and a published author, much like his mother and sister, Mary. Joan also discussed Robert’s courageous decision to share his diagnosis of schizophrenia with others to share his experience and to help educate others about mental illness.”

Robert’s youngest sister, Mary, was diagnosed with a treatable mental illness and talks honestly and openly about it, too.

“Mary presented in my Biology of Mental Illness class as a person who has panic disorder,” Lafuze says. “I also describe some of our conversations about her illness in the book.”

The book’s title refers to Robert’s early quest for understanding. “Like so many children, Robert asked question after question,” Lafuze says.

Two of those questions resonate with a deeper meaning in the book.

The first, which relates to the title, “Mom, I know that Dad gave me my name Robert, but Mom, what I really want to ask is: How did Dad know that was the name God wanted for me?”

The second, which has inspired a poem and a new song on YouTube: “Mom, which is farther, Heaven or Florida?”

Mary wrote a touching poem about the second question when Robert was about 35. They shared a deep bond and she lovingly dedicated her dissertation to Robert for her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Purdue University, “To my brother, Robert, who has taught me the most important lessons in life.”

Her poem follows:

Which is farther Florida or Heaven,” the young boy asked his mom.
Puzzled, she replied, “I can’t answer that, my son.”
As she watched him grow, she shared his pain, his troubles broke her heart…
Why was life so cruel to him, this boy so sweet, so smart?
And as she thought of the road ahead, and all that he’d been through,
She remembered his question of long ago, and cried because she knew.
Florida was so far away – the fun, the sun, the joy.
Life was tears, and fears, and woe for her precious little boy!
But she felt a sense of peace, as she smiled in her despair.
Heaven is much, much closer you see, and she knew he’d make it there.

Lafuze’s friend, Bryce Nelson, a singer and pianist, used the poem to compose a song with two stanzas with a chorus, “Which is Farther?” To hear it, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bug7tectkvA

Joan Lafuze explains Robert’s nickname:
When Robert was only a few months old, Ralph and I took him to meet my grandfather, Pop. … I had heard him say many times that they had weighed him on a chicken scale when he was born, and it showed less than three pounds. He was not expected to live, but he did. During our visit, Pop told me the story that I had heard many times before. When he was 4 years old or so, he heard a neighbor ask his father, ‘Bill what are you going to do with that runt?’  Pop heard his father answer that Walter would be their pinmaker. Pop said to Ralph and me, ‘Don’t you worry about this one. Robert will be your pinmaker.’

Lafuze didn’t know what the term meant.

In fact, a Google search could find only references to sewing. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary simply states: one who makes pins.

“The only two people I have ever heard it describe were both very small babies who were not expected to survive,” Lafuze says. “They both grew up to be small in stature, but whose lives have made a difference.”

Joan Lafuze’s road to IU East
She worked as a medical technologist when her four children were young and then attended Ball State University, where she received a master’s degree in Physiology and Health Science.

She then earned a Ph.D. in Physiology at Indiana University School of Medicine and accepted a Post-Doctoral position in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. In 1987, a tenure-track position opened at IU East.

“Ralph was practicing law in Hagerstown at the time. All three of our daughters had graduated from high school and were in college or beyond. It was perfect.”

Because IU East had no research facilities then, she commuted from Richmond to Indianapolis to do research at the school of medicine.

“Robert became ill in 1981, so I was already interested in neuroscience. Eventually I was able to be involved in neuroscience research in the Department of Psychiatry and to teach The Biology of Mental Illness through Interactive Video and The Biology of Addictions online at IU East.”

Her faculty profile is available on the IU East website.

For All: The Indiana University Bicentennial Campaign
For All: The Indiana University Bicentennial Campaign is taking place on all IU-administered campuses, including IU Bloomington, IUPUI, IU East, IU Kokomo, IU Northwest, IU South Bend and IU Southeast. The campaign will conclude in June 2020 to coincide with IU’s bicentennial celebration. To learn more about the campaign, its impact and how to participate, visit forall.iu.edu.