Late professor Dennis Dailey remembered for positivity, inclusiveness he brought to sexual education

University of Kansas social welfare professor Dennis Dailey leads a discussion with his graduate students. Dailey came under fire by Sen. Susan Wagle for the content of his course on human sexuality.

Even when he was teaching in a 500-seat lecture hall, students seeking to enroll in Dennis Dailey’s human sexuality class might have had to join a wait list.

Dailey, who died on Jan. 3, taught human sexuality courses in the School of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas from 1969 to 2005, and his class was in high demand within his school and beyond. Thousands of students passed through his classroom in those years, and what they got was frank and open teaching about sexuality that was not only positive, but inclusive of different sexual orientations, disabled people, and others at a time when sex in general remained a largely taboo subject.

KU Professor Emeritus Rick Spano, who was associate dean of the School of Social Welfare for about 15 years while Dailey was teaching, said Dailey taught about the complex topic of sex at a time when a lot of the information that was out there was provided in a toxic way.

“In general in society, the level of information related to sexuality is really quite minimal, and often provided in a way that can be toxic to people,” Spano said. “And so trying to understand (sexuality), this was an opportunity for many young people.”

Dailey is the author of the Circles of Sexuality, a positive model defining human sexuality that is still used broadly by sex educators, academics, and therapists, according to his obituary. While teaching, Dailey started a private therapy practice and continued to consult with other practitioners into his retirement. He was certified as a sex educator, sex therapist and supervisor by the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). He won numerous awards for his teaching, including KU’s HOPE Award, which is voted on and awarded by the KU student body.

In this file photo from May 6, 2003, Del Shankel, left, presents Dennis Dailey, professor of social
work, with the the Del Shankel Teaching Excellence Award.

One of Dailey’s early students was Lauretta Hendricks Backus. Backus said she took Dailey’s class in the late ’70s, before the 500-seat lecture halls, and was one of only 12 students in the class. Backus, who later taught art in the Lawrence school district for nearly 20 years, was in the school of fine arts and painting, but she had a roommate who was graduate student in social welfare who encouraged her to take the class. Backus said Dailey talked about human sexuality in regard to the culture and the students individually, and ended up being the most influential teacher she ever had.

“I was 22. I didn’t really have a lot of experience, if any, at that point,” Backus said. “He just gave you the power to be in control of your body and know you had choices as a young woman. And it totally influenced my life. A couple of years later, I met my soon-to-be husband, and it influenced my relationship with him.”

Backus, who said she was raised Catholic, said Dailey was very personable, and to speak about sex in a normal way, inclusive of all sexualities and people, was powerful.

“He would just talk about stuff and normalize everything. All sexualities,” Backus said. “… He’d show us videos of different kinds of couples making love, like disabled couples, old people, everything. He said the only thing abnormal about sex would be if you didn’t have it. It was all OK as long as everybody was consensual.”

Spano said Dailey was a staunch supporter of his LGBTQ students, and that the inclusiveness in his classroom was impactful for many, including those who were recognizing their sexual orientation for the first time.

“One of the things about Dennis was he was very devoted to trying to protect students for coming under fire for who they were,” Spano said.

As Dailey’s class was part of the social welfare program, Spano said Dailey also dealt with painful subjects, such as rape and childhood sexual abuse. Spano said with classes of 500 students, there would inevitably be students recognizing their prior sexual abuse, and Dailey would support them and point them to resources where they could get help. Spano said the support Dailey gave to those students was perhaps one of the most important public services the school was able to provide.

“Many of the kids who were in those classes were learning about sexuality and being able, for the first time in their lives, to name what it is that happened to them, and then coming to understand how it was impacting them,” Spano said.

However, even though the videos and photographs Dailey showed in his classes were part of official educational curriculum materials, his treatment of human sexuality was not without controversy. In 2003, Dailey came under attack by Kansas Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, who accused him of promoting pornography, among other claims that the university investigated and found to be baseless. Wagle introduced a bill, which was passed by the Legislature but ultimately vetoed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, that would have pulled $3.1 million in state funding from the KU School of Social Welfare. The topic was even picked up by Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” with Wagle airing her accusations about Dailey on national television.

Spano said that he thinks Dailey’s inclusiveness and support of different sexual orientations was behind the attacks, and that the fact that Dailey continued to stand up for his teaching was meaningful to students.

“I can tell you, because I had conversations with students during that period of time, that it was stuff that was really important to them,” Spano said. “They never really thought that somebody would stand up for them. And he did.”

Dave Ranney, one of the reporters who covered the issue for the Journal-World, said that while Dailey largely tried to stay out of the fray, focusing instead on his students and continuing to teach his material, he remained an absolute champion for academic freedom and safe access to information.

“I think the word ‘hero’ is overused, but, you know, I think in a lot of ways for academic freedom he was a hero, because he put himself in danger, he put himself at risk to teach what he taught,” Ranney said.

Two students went on a follow-up segment of “The O’Reilly Factor” to defend Dailey, and on the last day of class that semester, the class of about 300 students gave him a standing ovation. Dailey retired from teaching at KU a couple of years later, in 2005, but he did not leave the classroom. He continued to teach human sexuality classes and workshops at Ecumenical Campus Ministries for years afterward. Backus, for her part, said she took his class at ECM twice in her later adult life as she sought to educate her children about sexuality in a healthy way.

In this file photo from May 8, 2003, University of Kansas professor Dennis Dailey receives a standing ovation during his last class of the semester.

Outside human sexuality and social work, Dailey and his wife, Judy, were longtime members of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance and lived for 38 years in the historic Robert H. Miller House at 1111 E. 19th St., according to a recent LPA newsletter. The house, which was built in 1858 and sits on 5 acres, survived Quantrill’s raid and was a station on the Underground Railroad. In their years there, the Daileys restored the house and outbuildings, harvested hay from the pasture, connected with Miller’s great-great-granddaughter, and even regularly hosted elementary school students on field trips.

Historian Dennis Domer, who also taught at KU, said that Dailey “lived history,” and that there were so many artifacts, certificates, letters and diaries in the Miller home while the Daileys were living there that stepping inside was like going into the 19th century. Domer said that Dailey wrote two articles on the subject for the upcoming second volume of “Embattled Lawrence,” a community history anthology of the city. But Domer said perhaps one of Dailey’s most poignant contributions was the time and care he took with the African American families whose ancestors had stayed at the Miller property during their escape to freedom.

Dennis Dailey is pictured outside his home in this file photo from April 23, 2007. Dailey and his wife, Judy, restored the historic brick home, known as the Robert Miller House, 1111 E. 19th St.

Domer said families would stop by the house, sometimes with their children, and Dailey would share his knowledge about the property and the Millers’ involvement with the Underground Railroad. He said Dailey would take them to the places, such as the site of the old smokehouse, where it was known people escaping slavery had been hidden.

“There was a lot of crying with the families, because (their ancestors) perhaps would have never gotten out of their enslavement otherwise,” Domer said. “… He would spend hours with them. He would take them to the house, to the barn, to where the smoke house used to be.”

Like in his classes, Dailey was personable and open with those who visited, Domer said, and when someone would pull into his home’s private driveway and mistakenly ask when the “museum” opened, he’d tell them it was open now.

In addition to the many students he influenced in the decades he spent teaching, there are likely many more who would rise to their feet and give Dailey a standing ovation for a life well lived.

Dailey died on Jan. 3 at the age of 84 following a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, according to his obituary. He is survived by his wife, Judy Brown Dailey, brother James Dailey, daughters Lisa (Jeff) Dehon and Amy (Tad) Cooper, and grandchildren Wes, Max, Grace, and Jeff. A graveside service with immediate family will be held at Pioneer Cemetery, with plans for a memorial service pending.


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