Memorial Service given by Alexander Woolcott on the Radio Program
This is Woolcott speaking. The Town Crier submits this broadcast as a memorial service -- a memorial to one of the great women of our time ... or any time. I count it one of the priceless privileges of my life that I knew her. I speak of her tonight because this is the eve of an anniversary. It was fifty years tomorrow that this woman began her masterpiece -- fifty years ago that she started a work which has long been recognized the world around as one of the heartening triumphs of the human spirit -- fifty years ago tomorrow that she entered a partnership of which the net result was a beacon that still shines steadfast thru the darkest storm-clouds. That unfailing light has put heart into more disconsolate people than can ever be numbered. I shall have failed in my own job tonight -- I shall have told the story badly -- if when you now hear it once again you don't feel disposed, like Saint Paul, to thank God and take courage.
Fifty years ago tomorrow! But back of that, there are a dozen points at which one could start this story. Such a point as the day on which an unkempt and desperate little savage named Annie Sullivan was deposited on the doorstep of the Perkins Institution in Boston. She had been shipped there from the Tewksbury Almshouse, a dust-bin for human refuse and the only home she knew. The Sullivans were shanty Irish -- shiftless, illiterate. The mother, a sickly cripple. The father, a drunk. When pretty, hapless Mrs. Sullivan joined most of her babies in the graveyard and the father wandered off, their two surviving kids were left on the town. Jimmy, a crippled boy, who soon died in the almshouse. And Annie, his frantic little sister who so dearly loved him -- Annie Sullivan who was nearly blind. That Tewksbury almshouse! Paupers, superannuated streetwalkers, idiots, cripples, lunatics, men and women scarred and twisted in body or mind, all swept under the rug. That was then the custom of the country. Society asked only that the likes of them be kept out of sight. Onto that junk heap was tossed Annie Sullivan. And that would have been the end of this story except for one thing. You see, Annie had the gumption of all-get-out.
Now in the almshouse there was one seedy old rip who used to read to the kid -- "East Lynne" and other gaudy romances -- and who told her once that somewhere (she didn't know where) there was a school at which blind girls could be taught to read. After that Annie gave the Board of Overseers no peace. When they'd make a tour of inspection, she hung onto their coat-tails -- literally -- and clamored to be sent to that school. Finally she got her man. Thus it happened that one fateful day she was shipped to the Perkins Institute. That was in 1880.
Annie arrived there when she was fourteen ... Annie Sullivan, fruit of a union which the know-it-alls of eugenics would have forbidden altogether ... a fourteen-year-old ragamuffin who couldn't even spell her own name. She'd never worn a nightgown. She'd never used a comb or a toothbrush. She was nearly blind. Any onlooker would have said her prospects weren't too bright. But they didn't know Annie. She was made of the original stuff of creation. Every once in a while we do seem to catch God in the act of trying again. The result is a timeless creature, coeval with Adam. Shakespeare seemed such a feat of independent creation. So did Saint Francis of Assisi. So does Toscannini. Of such stuff surely was Annie Sullivan.
The Perkins Institution was the first school of its kind in the world. The life work of Samuel Gridley Howe, the good physician whose wife -- she's been a Miss Julia Ward of New York -- whose wife wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Dr. Howe will be held in honor as long as it is a custom of the human race to remember the men who have ever served it. A pioneer -- the first person ever to teach a child who was both blind and deaf -- the first to hold out a strong, kind, patient hand to such a one and lead her out of that still wilderness. That was Laura Bridgman. In medical history, a celebrated case. It was just a century ago this year that little Laura was brought from her home in New Hampshire to the newly launched school. Many years later when Annie Sullivan arrived on its doorsteps, Dr. Howe was dead but Laura still lived at the school and because Annie had no home to go to at vacation time, she saw more of old Laura than the rest did and from her learned the manual alphabet of the deaf.
Well, time and the school brought order out of Annie's chaos and, though surgery for the eyes in those days was primitive, an operation in Boston at last made it possible for her to see almost as well as anyone. Thus by what seemed like sundry mischances -- I say "seemed" because all thru this story you do hear the tick- tick-tick of destiny -- thus did it come about that Annie Sullivan, at twenty, tho she herself could hear and see, did know the language of both the deaf and the blind. And just then there came to the school a letter from Alabama.
That letter was from Mrs. Keller, wife of a Captain Arthur Keller, who owned a fairish plantation in Tuscumbia. Mrs. Keller was troubled about their first-born -- a pretty girl of seven. At eighteen months this child had been ravaged by a malignant fever which left in its wake a dreadful devastation. Never again would the little girl see or hear. At seven she was a tempestuous and ungovernable animal. Her people had no notion how to handle her.
Now it so happens that when Charles Dickens made his first voyage to America, he had visited the Perkins School and talked with Laura Bridgman and met the great Dr. Howe. And about that visit he wrote an astonished paragraph for his American notes. It was thru this Dickens report that Mrs. Keller first learned about the school, and in her great need she wrote there asking if it could recommend a governess for her child -- a teacher to attempt the little girl's deliverance. A job, if ever there was one, for Annie Sullivan.
So Annie spent three months studying the records Dr. Howe had kept while teaching Laura. Then, with all that pioneer experience stored in the back of her mind, she packed her shabby bag and started for Alabama. An inexperienced governess, hired sight unseen at twenty-five a month and found. Fifty years ago yesterday. Fifty years ago tomorrow in Tuscumbia she got down out of the phaeton, ran up the steps and put her strong, young arms around the strong, stormy, sightless, inaccessible child ... Helen Keller -- Helen Keller whom little orphan Annie was to lead out of the silent darkness -- out of the night that covered her, black as the pit from pole to pole. Fifty years ago tomorrow. Thus the famous partnership began. What happened thereafter is unbelievable. Even when you study the record and know what Annie Sullivan did step by step, her initial task was so difficult -- how first to break thru to that imprisoned mind.
Why, even though we see the triumphant result, the first steps still defy our comprehension. In no time the whole world was watching one of the great adventures in the history of education. When in 1904 Helen Keller was graduated with girls of her own age from Radcliffe (literature, French, Greek, mathematics, all of it) graduated, mind you, cum laude, it fully dawned on the world that it had witnessed a miracle. And only then, I suspect, did people begin to guess that while Helen herself was surely a wunderkind, her teacher too must have had greatness. Ever since, I've heard futile discussions as to which of the two -- teacher or pupil -- was the more remarkable.
By her strength and her imagination and her dearly bought wisdom, Annie Sullivan affected the release of a great spirit. Yes. But great spirit was there to release. Well, it's an old story now. I began following it when the half had not yet been told. Probably all kids are interested in their celebrated contemporaries. When first I fell into the dubious practice of reading there were five such famous youngsters. I snatched up every crumb of information printed about them. Wilhelmina, the little queen of Holland. (There was a girl for you ... and still is.) Alfonso, the boy king of Spain. (He hasn't done so well lately.) Elsie Leslie, the child actress. (She had tea with me the other day.) Joseph Hoffman, the boy pianist. (I'm told by my betters, including Rachmaninoff, that today there is no greater pianist playing.) And Helen ... Helen Keller, as ever was. Some of what I've told you tonight I learned from Helen herself, and some from Annie Sullivan. I suppose I should call her Anne Sullivan Macy, for in time she married the late John Macy. I knew her. Indeed, I could ask no prouder inscription on my tombstone than this: "Here lies all that was mortal (which was quite a good deal) of the Town Crier. In his life he was honored by the friendship of Anne Sullivan Macy."
Yes, an old story now. Much of it I learned from Nella Braddy's superb book on Mrs. Macy. Some from the life of Dr. Howe, written by his daughter -- the daughter he named after Laura Bridgman. You know her as Laura E. Richards -- know her best, perhaps, as the lovely lady who wrote "Captain January." To her in Gardiner, Maine, tonight I send my love. And mind you, the story isn't finished -- nor will it ever be. You've only to go to the Perkins Institution now as I did last Saturday -- a beautiful place at Watertown near Boston ... only to go there now to know that the age of miracles isn't over -- that the light still burns there, clear and strong. If you stand thus outside the story, you do see it as a torch handed on from Dr. Howe to Laura Bridgman, from Laura to Anne Sullivan, from Annie to Helen Keller, from Helen to ---
Well, on April first Helen Keller will sail for Yokohama. The women and the government of Japan have sent for her -- an undaunted American woman carrying that light into the Far East, sharing there, as she has shared here, what she has made it her life work to find out -- not only that handicaps such as hers can be coped with, but how more often than not they can be prevented. Helen Keller -- as modest, warmhearted and delightful a woman as ever I met anywhere at any time. She will sail with her secretary, Polly Thomson -- that strong, serene and generous girl from Scotland who saw Helen and Mrs. Macy thru all their tribulations for more than twenty years. Now Mrs. Macy is gone and Miss Thomson is left to carry on. You can trust her.
It was last October that Mrs. Macy put down her burden. I think everyone at the funeral felt immeasurably impoverished, but one and all were stricken most by the tragedy of Helen parted from Teacher after fifty years. All of us heart-sick at the mere thought of that unimaginable separation. Surely all eyes in the church were riveted on the sight of Polly Thomson and Helen Keller following the coffin together. The tears pouring down Miss Thomson's checks. And just as the two of them passed the pew where I sat, I saw the swift, bird-like fluttering of Helen's hands -- saw and with a quickened heartbeat knew what I had seen. Helen -- comforting her companion.
Well, there's the story. As I said, an old one. At least I've never had the impertinence to be sorry for Helen Keller. I'd as soon be sorry for Niagara Falls. But now as I bring the story up to date, I'm shriveled with shame when I recall that at times in my life -- my easy life -- I've actually been sorry for myself. You too? We've got our nerve, haven't we?
Which leaves me nothing more to say except this. This to Helen Keller and Polly Thomson as they start for the Far East. Our prayers and Annie Sullivan's too, maybe -- the prayers of all of us -- go with you both to Japan and back -- now and always. Amen.