In conjunction with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, the TimesLedger newspaper presents noteworthy events in the borough’s history.
Born on April 14, 1866, in Feeding Hills, Mass., Anne Sullivan is best known as the teacher and lifelong companion of Helen Keller. Stricken with an eye disease that left her nearly blind, Sullivan began teaching Keller at age 20 following her graduation from the renowned Perkins School for the Blind in her home state. By signing words into her hand for various objects such as water and a drinking mug, Sullivan taught Keller braille and entered the world of her strong-willed charge to free her soul from darkness. Sullivan was with Helen Keller until 1936, when Sullivan died in Forest Hills, Queens.
The oldest child of impoverished Irish immigrants, Sullivan contracted the highly contagious eye disease trachoma at age 5. The condition left her with severely limited vision and without basic literacy skills. Before age 10, her mother passed away. Her father, fearing he could not provide for his three children, abandoned the family. Young Anne was sent to a dirty, overcrowded almshouse where her younger brother soon died.
Another blind resident at the almshouse told her about special schools for the blind. At 14, the determined Anne convinced an administrator to let her enroll at the Perkins School for the Blind, then located in Boston.
Although her rough manners made life at the school difficult at first, the ambitious student learned the braille alphabet and underwent a series of operations to improve her eyesight. Anne Sullivan graduated as class valedictorian at age 20.
The following year, the Keller family in Alabama was in a desperate search for a teacher for their seven-year-old blind and deaf daughter, Helen. They contacted the Perkins School, who dispatched Anne. The strong-willed Yankee girl argued with her hosts about the Civil War and the fact that the family owned slaves, but, after trial and error, quickly bonded with young Helen.
Through the 49-year relationship, Anne Sullivan was Helen Keller’s teacher, governess, companion and lifelong friend.
Eventually, Sullivan took her bright student to Boston to study at the Perkins School. With her instructor’s guidance and determination, Helen Keller became the first deaf-blind person to graduate college, earning a degree from Radcliffe College in 1904.
Sullivan married Harvard University instructor John Albert Macy, who helped Keller publish her autobiography, in 1905. Although Macy moved in with the inseparable pair, their marriage soon fell apart. They soon separated, but never officially divorced.
Sullivan and her student and companion moved to Queens in 1917, living together on 112th Street where the Reform Temple of Forest Hills now stands. In her later years, Sullivan’s vision failed and she became completely blind in 1935. She passed away in Forest Hills on October 20, 1936, with Helen Keller holding her hand.
Sullivan’s story of perseverance, love and triumph over darkness is immortalized in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, starring Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan.
At her funeral, Sullivan was eulogized as “Among the great teachers of all time, (occupying) a commanding and conspicuous place. ... The touch of her hand did more than illuminate the pathway of a clouded mind; it literally emancipated a soul.”
Anne Sullivan’s ashes were interred in a memorial at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. She was the first woman to be recognized for her achievements in this way.
Notable Quote: “Every renaissance comes to the world with a cry, the cry of the human spirit to be free.”
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