Sunday, December 7, 2008

They Overcame Their Handicaps: Keller and Roosevelt

Have you ever felt that a number of events were pulling you in a certain direction? Genealogists have had these feelings probably a number of times. In September of this year, I seemed to be pulled in the direction of the well-known deaf and blind activist, Helen Keller. First, I should say that Helen and her teacher and companion, Anne Sullivan, were known to have visited the place of employment of my grandfather, Otto Strike. He was the ice plant operator at Cresson Tuberculosis Sanitarium in the 1930s and 1940s. Also in September, I was visiting my mother for a few weeks in the DC area. In a local book store, my genealogist's eyes alighted on a copy of “Milestones into Headstones. Mini Biographies of Fifty Fascinating Americans Buried in Washington, DC", by Peter Exton and Dorsey Kleitz. I bought the book and a couple more on the way out of the store. Books are my downfall because I often put myself into the book. It has gotten me into trouble several times in the past, like the time I built a cabin in the woods, but that’s a long story. In any case, this time I thought it would be a neat project if could tour as many of the Headstones referenced in this book as possible. Then take pictures for my blog. I already had a head start- I located and took a picture of the tombstone for F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the Great Gatsby. He was buried in my hometown of Rockville, MD, a fact that was previously unbeknownst to me. I was so impressed that I took a picture and blogged it.

Thus, I used my recently purchased book as a guide. I took the official tour of Arlington National Cemetery. Indeed, I ticked off 7 of the 27 Famous persons mentioned in the book who are buried at Arlington. For the record, these were Richard Byrd, Abner Doubleday (the “inventor”of baseball), Medgar Evers, John and Robert Kennedy, Robert Taft and The Unknown Soldier.

What interested me most, however, was that Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan were interred at Washington’s National Cathedral. So, I took a pilgrimage to the Cathedral and I was not disappointed. I arrived in time to take the official tour. Below, a fellow tourist tactically observes the inscription which is written, interestingly, in Braille.

The duplicate inscription above the Braille, reads, “Helen Keller and her lifelong companion Anne Sullivan Macey are interred in the columbarium behind this Chapel".

Incidentally, since The Cathedral might be featured during the Holiday Season, such as in a Christmas service, I will tell you that the only former President who is buried in Washington, DC, is Woodrow Wilson, and his sarcophagus is in the Cathedral.

What were the other events which seemed to make me particularly aware of Helen Keller? I came home from my tour of the Cathedral and spontaneously turned on the TV. Believe it or not, “The Miracle Worker”, the story of Helen Keller’s life, was on Turner Classic Movies. It starred Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft- who received the 1962 Academy Award for her portrayal of Anne Sullivan. Actually, I had seen the movie once before, many years ago. But, when the scene came up in which Patty Duke, as Helen Keller, groaned out the words, “wah wah” while Anne pumped cold well-water over Helen’s outstretched arms and “signing” the word “water” in her hands , I got such a lump in my throat I could hardly swallow or breath.

A few days later, it hit me again. On Roots Television, Dick Eastman was interviewing Judith Lacey of the New England Historic and Genealogical Society. Judith was describing the holdings of their library. Quite fortunately, the library recently received some family papers, and it just so happens that a previously unknown photograph of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan surfaced among the papers. What was striking about this photograph was that the eight year old Helen was holding a doll in her hands. D-O-L-L was the first word that Anne signed into the palm and fingers of Helen’s hand.

Helen Keller went on to be the first deaf-blind person to graduate from College (Radcliffe). Realize, that when Helen was born in 1880, society had dictated that the blind and deaf were idiots.

Franklin D. Roosevelt realistically depicted in his memorial

While I was in Washington, DC, I rode my bicycle around many of the monuments and memorials in the city. Another historic person who was able to rise high above his handicap was former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. I toured his memorial which is spread over about 7 acres near the Capital Mall. Several statues, sculptures, and inscriptions depict the era of Roosevelt's’ presidency. He led the nation through two of the greatest crises of the twentieth century, the Great Depression and World War II. The centerpiece of the monument was a large statue of the mature President and his Scottish Terrier. However, many were disappointed that the figure did not display his disability. Roosevelt had been stricken with polio and was not able to stand by himself. It is ironic that FDR was able to get the Nation back on its feet after the Depression, but was unable to stand on his own two feet. In any case, a protest was planned for the dedication of the Memorial by activists for the handicapped. However, Congress quickly passed an act, signed by President Clinton, which approved the addition of another statue. It shows FDR, full-sized, sitting strong and determined- in a wheel chair. The protest was cancelled. Behind the wheel chair, one can barely see an inscription on the wall. Beneath the inscription is a line of Braille. See below:

Image: Two statues of Franklin D. Roosevelt at his memorial in Washington, DC.


1. Previous entry on the experiences of my grandfather, Otto Strike, at Cresson TB Sanitarium, Cambria County, Pennsylvania.

2. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tombstone at St. Mary’s, Rockville, MD.

3. Dick Eastman of Roots Television interviews Judith Lacey of The New England Historic Genealogical Society regarding a heretofore never seen, vintage photograph of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. Try this link first which was labeled “get link” on their Web site, or if that does not work try this link which was copy/pasted directly from the URL. The second link leads to National media coverage of the event (NBC, Fox, etc.).

4. At Home in the Woods, by Vena and Bradford Angier. Collier Books, Div. of Macmillan, NY, copyright 1951. Do NOT read this book if you tend to live vicariously in what you read. Fortunately, the book is probably out of print. Uh oh, Vena and Brad Angier are on Google Search.

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