Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Coming Attractions: Helen Keller Mural in Forest Hills

By Michael Perlman

Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan Macy in 1913
One of the most courageous 20th century notables was author, lecturer, and advocate Helen Keller (1880 – 1968), but few people may realize that she once called Forest Hills home and was quite active locally. From 1917 to 1938, she resided in a charming brick-gabled and limestone house at 93 Seminole Avenue, later renumbered 71-11 112th Street.

Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, & Polly Thomson's Forest Hills house
In May, a mural that will commemorate Helen Keller and her achievements from a local to international perspective will rise on the west wall of the Ascan Avenue underpass of the Long Island Railroad, and will be painted on heavy duty primed panels. It will transform a banal wall into an educational and motivational beacon for community residents and visitors, and especially children. The project is being coordinated by this columnist and will be painted by international muralists Crisp and Praxis, natives of Australia and Columbia, respectively. It is in partnership with the Queens Economic Development Corporation, the Long Island Railroad, and Council Member Karen Koslowitz who secured $6,500 in public funding. Additional contributors included local residents and Portofino Ristorante.

Helen Keller inside her home, Courtesy of Susanna & Robert Hof
“When I was in first grade, I read ‘The Story of My Life’ by Helen Keller, and was fascinated by her spirit,” said contributor Gloria Piraino. “The following year, I saw the excellent film, ‘The Miracle Worker’ in the movies, and I was hooked. The very idea that a dedicated teacher could reach a young student with such difficulties was an inspiration. I became a teacher because of this, and taught for over 25 years. When I found out that Helen Keller lived in Forest Hills, I was so proud to have moved here. A mural commemorating her life will bring her inspirational story to future generations.”

Another contributor, Steve Schott, said “For our Forest Hills history, it’s important to recognize great people in our community, and it’s an honor to recognize Helen Keller.” He continued, “I want to thank the project’s coordinator and the artists for their desire to improve our community, making it better place to live.”

The mural is anticipated to feature Helen Keller's face and her Forest Hills house, a hand feeling Braille, as well as depict voting rights and her passion for animals. Another focal point will be her well-known quote, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” An additional component will be a plaque, which will summarize her accomplishments and feature her photo and signature, as well as the project’s responsible parties. Collaboratively, the mural and plaque will offer an outdoor museum feel.

The artists presently have two Forest Hills murals; the Ramones/Forest Hills Stadium/Station Square mural at the Continental Avenue LIRR underpass, completed in June 2016, and “A Tribute To Ascan Avenue & The Forest Hills Gardens” featuring Civil War farmer Ascan Backus and Forest Hills Gardens founders, completed in April 2017 on the east wall, under the direction of this columnist. 

Helen Keller, Courtesy of Queens Community Board 6
Keller lived a storied life. After she contracted Scarlet Fever, she became blind and deaf at 19 months. She was examined by Alexander Graham Bell, telephone inventor and pioneer speech teacher for the deaf, who referred her to the Perkins School for the Blind. At 7, she met Anne Sullivan Macy (1866 – 1936), who was partially blind. “Miracle Worker” Macy moved in with Keller in Forest Hills, and became her teacher and closest companion. She also lived with secretary Polly Thomson and 8 dogs, mostly Great Danes.

Keller mastered the manual alphabet and learned to read Braille and print block letters. At age 9, she began to read lips and communicate. As a graduate of Radcliffe College in 1904 at age 24, Keller became the first deaf and blind individual to earn a Bachelor of Arts.

In 1913, she began lecturing on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind, and her objective of removing stigmas associated with sight and hearing disorders took her worldwide. Traditionally, such conditions resulted in placing the blind and deaf in asylums. She also advocated for labor rights and women’s suffrage. From 1920 to 1924, Keller and Macy partnered for an educational vaudeville act. Keller’s published works include “The Story of My Life” (1902), “The World I Live In” (1908), “Out of the Dark” (1913), and “Helen Keller’s Journal” (1938). 

Helen Keller at her desk
On her home’s lawn, she celebrated birthdays by coordinating large-scale parties for the blind, and held fundraising tours to benefit the American Foundation for the Blind. She welcomed members of the Rainbow Division of the U.S. Army (42nd Infantry) in 1917, and then on the steps in Station Square, she greeted 1,200 soldiers. She stated, “The Star-Spangled Banner was more than 100 years ago dedicated as a symbol of freedom. We have since that time lived for that flag and for freedom, and I am proud to meet you, who are now ready to die, if need be for it, that there might be equal rights for all men and women alike.”

At the 1925 Lions Club International Convention, Keller stated, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much” and challenged Lions to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.”

In March 1926, Keller and Macy visited the Forest Hills Theatre, and lectured to further the mission of the American Foundation for the Blind, as part of a countrywide campaign. The blind organist, violinist, and composer Edwin Grasse accompanied Keller who sang, as organist Samuel Pearce of the Church-in-the-Gardens accompanied him. In October 1931, with one of her Great Danes at her side, she conducted a presentation titled “How Parents Can Help Their Children” at a Mother’s Club meeting at Public School 3.

Keller and Macy attended Sunday services at the First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills, and also visited The Church-in-the-Gardens, where Keller lectured to the youth. Keller wrote a well-received column, "Into The Light" for the Queens newspaper, The Daily Star.

Keller spoke at The Community House, after being encouraged by her friend Homer Croy, a notable author, screenwriter, and humorist of Forest Hills. Her home was frequented by guests ranging from journalists to scientists to social workers. In 1936, after the Continental Avenue subway opened, her excitement led her to taking the train into Manhattan with secretary Polly Thomson. 

Helen Keller & dog Sieglinde in bottom row, Anne Sullivan Macy & Polly Thomson in top row, Courtesy of the Hof family
Keller has been called by Mark Twain “one of the two most interesting characters of the 19th century” alongside Napoleon. Between 1946 and 1957, she went on tour 7 times and visited 5 continents, totaling over 30 countries. She encountered world figures including John F. Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin, and Grover Cleveland. She worked with seven American presidents and was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. She was also the recipient of the Lions Humanitarian Award for her lifetime service in 1961, and in 1965, was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame at the 1964 - 1965 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

Keller once said, “The millions of blind eyes must be opened. Society is always creating too much trouble for philanthropy to patch. One must attack social problems at their roots.” Other inspirational words are “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”

A similar version of this feature was published in the Forest Hills Times: 

No comments:

Post a Comment