JAY COPP 0000-00-00 00:00:00
A year ago, 40 years after the death of Helen Keller, LION Magazine lamented the dwindling of the fame of the American heroine. Schoolchildren rarely read her autobiography and general cultural awareness of her accomplishments was dimming. Lions in Alabama, where her childhood home in Tuscumbia is preserved as a shine, still championed Keller. But we concluded “it will be up to Lions to keep not only her mission but also her memory alive.” Well, we learned that Lions and others indeed are keeping her memory alive. They search out those who knew her, stage The Miracle Worker and teach about her in the classroom. Keller was famous precisely because her indomitable spirit soared above daunting circumstances. Her spirit lives on and her fame endures because her story continues to inspire. Friend of keller shares his memories When Lions in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, read the cover story in the LION decrying the diminished interest in Helen Keller, they knew what they had to do. They invited resident Peter Svanda to speak at their meeting. Svanda, 78, worked for Keller and befriended her as a boy. Svanda, a recent Lion, wowed the club with his tales of Keller. “Everybody was very interested. She’s the patron saint of Lions. It was just amazing,” said Phil Fiore, club president. Svanda met Keller in 1946 in Westport, Connecticut, where they both lived. Svanda’s grandmother, a Czechoslovakian immigrant, was the laundress to the 65-year-old Keller, whose comfortable home was filled with dinner parties with awed guests from across America and Japan, where she was particularly popular. Her neighbors included the conductor Leonard Bernstein and the writer Edna Ferber. Paul Newman later moved into the neighborhood. Svanda, 12, who rode his bike five miles to get to Keller’s home, mowed the lawn and washed dishes. “She was so loving,” says Svanda. “She would always put her hands on my face and know who I was. Then she gave me a big hug.” He was able to draw close to the world celebrity precisely because he traveled in far different circles. Svanda later swam for his high school and she asked him about that and other parts of his life. “She didn’t know very many boys my age,” he said. “I was a very unique attraction.” Keller could talk and did so with Svanda in her spacious office. But he preferred it when she conversed with him by using an ordinary typewriter. To understand his reply, she put one finger across his lips and two fingers on his vocal cords. “She would understand everything I said,” he recalled. Keller was extremely perceptive. “When we walked in the flower gardens, she would say “yellow rose, pink rose, red rose,’ knowing each color by the smell,” said Svanda. Even more extraordinary, she could feel the vibrations of the five-foot black snake that frequented the backyard. When Keller drew near him, he slithered away. “There goes my friend,” she would say. Keller arranged for Svanda to take his driving test when he was 16, and he drove her to the train station for business meetings in New York and to the stores in Westport for shopping. He also drove her and Polly Thomson, Keller’s companion after Annie Sullivan died, to the movies twice a month. Thomson used sign language in Keller’s hand to explain the action. “They would both laugh or cry depending on what the film was about,” said Svanda. But Svanda also fondly recalled the ordinary domestic routines of the Keller home. She loved good food and loved to walk. Svanda built a long fence in the backyard, and, using the poles as a guide, she took several walks a day if the weather was decent. On warmer days, she and Thomson sat on the patio in the late afternoon. Keller drank bourbon. Thomson preferred Scotch whiskey. In the winter, the two sat in front of the wood-burning fireplace. “Keller loved the smell of the burning wood and the warmth it gave the entire room,” he said. In 1957, Svanda got married and went on with his life. But for years he drove Keller’s 1947 black Pontiac, which she sold to him. His memories remain. “I feel really blessed to have had the opportunity to know her, work for her and be her friend,” he said. Helen Keller is such an icon that even a Rotarian at his optometry office is proud to display a letter from her praising Lions. Patients of Dr. Robert Peterson in Houston see a framed, yellowing letter from Keller dated Feb. 19, 1928, that hails the Scranton Lions in Pennsylvania for being “Knights of the Blind” and “Light-bringers to our darkness.” Peterson’s late mother-in-law purchased the letter 20 years ago at an auction. Peterson said an expert told him he believes the letter, which is eight inches long and four inches high, is authentic. The expert appraised the letter at $400. Peterson’s mother-in-law never would tell him how much she paid for the letter. But she did relate that the auctioneer at first refused to hand her the letter, saying he didn’t mean to auction it off. But she made a scene and he relented. The Scranton Lions today do not know exactly why Keller thanked them. But Helen Keller Day in the city began in 1929 (see page 30), so obviously there was some sort of relationship. Peterson said Keller wrote by using a grid-like device that kept her letters in line. Kevin Trotman, a patient of Dr. Robert Kemp, Peterson’s partner, says Keller used a ruler to guide her handwriting. (Trotman took the photo for this story. He had it posted on Flickr, a photo sharing Web site, where LION Magazine found it.) Based on examples of Keller’s writing he’s seen online, Trotman, too, believes the letter is genuine. Kemp’s father started the optometry practice 58 years ago. He was a Lion. Peterson is happy to give the Lions their due. “I enjoy showing it [the letter] to my patients,” he says. “The Lions do a great job.” Story of her life part of students’ lives For 32 years Joan Stafford of California has taught her students about Helen Keller. She not only relates Keller’s life story to her special education students but she also has them read Braille, use sign language and place cotton balls in their ears and blindfolds over their eyes to simulate Keller’s experience and greater appreciate her successes. “My students are inspired by her,” says Stafford, a Lion since 2001. “It’s amazing that Helen Keller continues to inspire, continues to teach and continues to educate.” Once a staple of the classroom, Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, has been dropped from many school reading lists. Its old-fashioned writing style and the lure of young adult books dealing with typical teen-age problems have pushed it off required reading lists. But some schools continue to steadfastly value conveying the story of a person who overcame great handicaps. Stafford’s 9th-graders at the Highlands Academy of Arts and Design in North Highlands cope with learning difficulties. Some have cerebral palsy or are vision-impaired. What they have in common is a sense that their future is limited, and learning about Keller helps explode that perception. “Their attitude [after learning about Keller] is, ‘I can do something.’ Their attitude is, ‘I can’ rather than ‘I cannot,’ ” says Stafford. “I’ve seen a noticeable difference in their performance level in class, too.” Stafford’s students discuss how they view people with limitations and how to help someone who is blind or disabled. “My students talk about how their own special needs may have been addressed during Helen’s lifetime and how she was able to adapt to her own situation and triumph,” says Stafford. A member of the Foresthills Lions Club, she also tells her students about Lions and their mission as Knights of the Blind. Stafford first learned of Keller as an 8th-grader in 1968. “My mother said, ‘Did you hear that Helen Keller died?’ I said, ‘No, who’s that?’” Stafford did some basic research on her and then read her autobiography in school the next year. She was hooked. Keller was a hero and Stafford traces her career as a teacher to those days. It’s a circle of inspiration that Stafford keeps twirling. At the end of the lesson on Keller, she has her students write a letter to a person of their choosing telling them about the American icon.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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