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NewsMay 17, 2021

Mustering resilience and finding a purpose

After a successful career in television production design, and several medical setbacks, Debe Hale ’21 earns her master’s degree

Debe Hale at desk

All roads led to Lesley for Debe Hale, who is receiving her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling this year. And there have been many roads, with stops in California, Kansas, St. Louis, Missouri, Maine and, of course Cambridge, where she first enrolled in her master’s program in art therapy back in 2009.

“I tell people I am the child of an underwear salesman,” Hale says with a laugh, explaining that her father worked for Hanes, and moved the family, over the course of several promotions, from her California birthplace to Winston-Salem, North Carolina (the location of the corporate headquarters), where she earned her bachelor’s degree at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

Before coming to Lesley, Hale, a fine arts photographer, had a successful 25 years in production design for television game shows, situation comedies, musical variety shows and, early in her career, designing jungle safari attractions for Busch Gardens theme parks.

But she also had something else: a variety of medical and learning challenges, ranging from attention deficit disorder, to epilepsy and seizure disorder, to breast cancer. Despite professional success in Los Angeles, creating prize platforms for “Wheel of Fortune,” working on specials featuring Carol Burnett, Barry Manilow, Kenny Rogers and others, and serving under renowned “Murphy Brown” creator Diane English on the sitcom “Love and War,” her many roads were bumpy ones.

Debe Hale encaustic artwork
Debe Hale started this encaustic panel during her first year at Lesley for a class assignment. She has and continuously added to it throughout her enrollment. It represents her journey for the past 11 years.

“I was with Diane at the end, then production kind of tapered off,” Hale says of her waning days in show business. “Situation comedies were slowly being replaced with reality-based productions.” It was around that time that she moved to Palm Springs, California, became a substitute teacher and was diagnosed with breast cancer. She enrolled in several clinical trials — one of which established Tamoxifen as a pre-eminent drug used after breast cancer surgery — and began focusing her artistic talents on her own healing process.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” she says of her access to top-notch treatment, counting her blessings. She recalls one night after a chemotherapy treatment: while showering, she discovered clumps of hair coming off in her hands.

“But I said, you know, I have warm water over me, and (Hurricane) Katrina was going on, so I just couldn’t go down that road of despair,” Hale says.

Hale looks back at this moment as the pivotal point when she decided to pursue a new career mid-life that would eventually lead her to becoming an art therapist.

“I wanted to work with women and photography and cancer,” she recalls.

She took her burgeoning art therapy discipline further, bringing her portfolio of cancer-recovery photographs to the F. Holland Day Center for Creativity and Healing in Georgetown, Maine, a coastal, woodland retreat venue where women with cancer and other serious illnesses created art and participated in activities to support their healing.

“The week-long retreat was structured so that women would spend mornings practicing yoga, followed by group sharing and experiential exercises,” Hale says. The afternoons involved photographic art therapy and journal writing.

Debe Small Headshot (smaller)
Debe Hale

“We were given a different topic to photograph every day: photograph what your cancer looks like or photograph what healing would look like for you.”

There, she also encountered a conduit to her future, in the person of Dr. Matthew Budd, a physician who designed the retreat program. Budd invited Hale to return to the retreat center as a creative assistant, then eventually persuaded her to pursue her master’s degree at Lesley, where Budd was at the time was on the advisory board of our Institute for Arts & Health.

“Matthew said, ‘Come to Lesley. I’ll introduce you to Mitchell Kossak,’” Hale says. She took Budd’s advice and put together a five-minute documentary presentation, with images and sounds, and met with the professor, who was then division director of Expressive Therapies in our Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences. “I remember walking down Brattle Street, going into that yellow house, and showing it,” she adds.

Hale enrolled in 2009 but, a couple of years into her program, suffered another setback when she was diagnosed with epilepsy and seizure disorder.

“The cancer was long gone by the time I got to Lesley, but the epilepsy made it difficult to continue,” Hale says, adding that the faculty and her advisors — first, Professor Emerita Julia Byers, then Art Therapy Associate Professor Raquel Stephenson — were understanding, supportive and encouraging of her eventual return last fall to complete the final courses for her master’s degree.

With her seizure disorder under control, and her master’s in hand, Hale is zeroing in on an expressive art therapy position that will allow her to marshal her talents and experiences in service to others.

“Artmaking for me, in a time of crisis, allowed me to make meaning out of the suffering,” she says. “The process of creative expression continues to invite renewed vision, insight and self-reflection.”