People I’ve Met Along The Way – Helen Keller

Nov 20, 2011 by

People I’ve Met Along The Way – Helen Keller

I have met so many interesting and famous people in my lifetime that I sometimes forget about those were not as famous as some but were highly interesting, none the less. In my working career as a newsman-journalist in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to meet many and varied personalities from the fields of politics, the arts, sports and entertainment. I relish all of those meetings and interviews that I conducted and have written about some of them in this series for Moments Count Journal. However, I sometimes forget that some of the best and most interesting characters I ever met was during the time I was not working as a newsman.

I was in the ninth grade at Ventura Junior High School. We had a separate campus from the juniors and seniors of the school system. They were eight blocks away at Ventura Senior High School and Junior College.  At Ventura Junior High School, a lot of students still rode their bikes to school, only a few of the tenth graders had jalopies. We were afforded the opportunity to stay young and enjoy our childhood before we took on the rigors of the upper classes of High School and then College.

At Ventura Junior High School our sports team was the Mariners, our colors were blue and gold and we had a spiffy white with blue and gold trim uniformed marching band that took part in local parades and gave occasional concerts for the students. The band concerts were a planned part of the assembly program which also included our spring talent show, the Christmas and Easter plays and special guests that were paid to come to the school and speak to us. Most of those speakers were motivational, although I think they were called “Assemblies For Learning” and they occasionally included someone from the arts or business world too.

My English teacher, Mrs. Whitesides assigned students who were doing well in their classes to be host and hostesses to the guest speakers and performers at a luncheon in our cafeteria. When it was announced that Helen Keller was coming to speak to us, I wanted to be one of her hosts. Helen Keller was both blind and deaf but became a very prominent woman of the thirties, forties, fifties and early sixties. Her story was told later in the motion picture “The Miracle Worker,” which earned both Patty Duke, as Helen Keller, and Anne Bancroft, as her teacher-companion Annie Sullivan, Academy Awards.

The famous sightless and deaf woman had overcome her physical difficulties to find huge success in political activism, writing eleven books, and also acting as the ambassador of good will for the American Foundation for the Blind and the schools and foundations for the Deaf, which are now known as the Helen Keller Foundations for the Blind and Deaf.

Mrs. Whitesides kept us in suspense for a week before she finally announced the list of students that would act as a host committee. I was ecstatic when she called my name to be one of six hosts, three boys and three girls, to welcome Miss Keller and her new companion to our school. Annie Sullivan died in 1936 leaving a huge hole in Keller’s life. Miss Keller’s former cook became her new companion. A young lady from Scotland, Polly Thompson, took Annie Sullivan’s place as secretary-companion. It was she who accompanied Miss Keller when they visited our school.

Helen Keller’s visit was on behalf of the Braille Institute and the Foundation for the deaf. Miss Keller made the much misunderstood blind and mute conditions of so many people, her life’s work by speaking anywhere she could find a group of people willing to listen. “Deaf and Dumb”, the popular expression for mutes at the time was not a part of her vocabulary.

My mother took me downtown to buy a new suit for the occasion at J. C. Penney’s, the same store from which she and my dad bought my first Boy Scout uniform a few years earlier. Mom had a penchant for style so she included in our purchases a special handkerchief for the breast pocket of my new suit. In those days “hankies” were worn only by rich men on Wall Street and actors attending the Academy Awards banquets in Hollywood…I looked like a dude and my fellow students let me know it with their taunts and cat calls. However they stopped teasing me when Miss Keller’s companion complimented me on my debonair suit, tie and handkerchief.

Miss Keller was a medium sized woman who was probably 5 feet, 5 inches tall. However, she stood erect as if to emphasize her triumph over her lack of sight and hearing. On the day of her speech she chose to wear a blue and white dress that she said she picked out herself. One of the things about her that always brought the question, “But Miss Keller, if you have been blind since you were two years old how do you select colors. Do you visualize color?” She usually answered that question in her speeches. However, on that day she explained that there were differences in perception. At a very young age, with Annie Sullivan creating scenes for her to visualize Miss Keller formed a perception in her mind of what each color was. From that day on, when someone spoke of color she substituted her conception for yellow, or red or blue. Miss Sullivan had related color to temperatures. She told the young girl to think of black as cold, blue as cool, orange as warm and something hot as red.

As her special hosts, the six members of the guest committee were all in awe of her. Before World War II she had visited India and ridden on an elephant’s back, China where she visited with Chaing Kai-shek and his wife Madam Chiang. She had visited Europe, before the war with Germany and Japan, and many other interesting and exotic places we had only read about in school. Now, here we were, a bunch of Junior High School students having lunch with this world traveler.

We would ask her a question and her companion, Polly Thompson, would encode our words on a small ingenious Braille machine which punched a piece of heavy paper with the encoded words. Miss Keller was very adroit at running her fingers over the dots and then answering our questions. Miss Thompson would let us run our fingers over the small dots on the paper before she gave them to Miss Keller who would read them and then answer in her monotone voice. Her inflection was like that of most other deaf persons I had met, single toned with an occasional change when they were angry or emphasizing a point in an argument but when she spoke softly she sounded like any other person at the table. She was an amazing woman.

How I wish we had been able to record that day on film or video tape as we are able to do today. Also at the table that day was the Vice Principle of our school, W. Fred Newcomb. Fred lived to be 104 years old and I visited with him many times in his home near the Ventura Marina. We had many discussions about the visits of the famous people that came to our school. Fred told me that most of those who spoke or entertained us came for very little money, usually a hundred dollars or so. We spent a lot of time wondering what someone of their stature would charge a school today to speak or entertain. We’d laugh about it speculating on the cost. Fred would say, “To get someone of Miss Keller’s stature today would cost you thousands and thousands of dollars.” Although I read recently that Y’zak Pearlman entertained at a high school in Los Angeles free of charge.

Helen Keller’s speech wasn’t free but the amount Fred remembered would only be about a thousand dollars in today’s money. She and other famous people who came to our school came to teach and to encourage us to learn. There were others as famous as Miss Keller who came to Ventura Junior High School, I’ll tell you more about them in future articles for Moments Count Journal. But in the meantime, be well!