The night Helen Keller came to Nashua’s First Church
After sitting “enthralled, with tears trickling down their cheeks, unchecked and unashamed … hardly daring to breathe as they beheld the remarkable sight before them,” it’s no wonder these men and women, who’d gathered at Nashua’s First Church, were so moved they whipped out their checkbooks and began writing through those tears.
Within just a couple of hours, they’d raised somewhere around $1,200 – that’s $17,000 today – for the American Foundation of the Blind.
But what was it that so inspired those estimated 1,500 Nashuans to give so freely of their hard-earned dollars, on an otherwise typical Friday evening back in June 1926?
It wasn’t a “what,” but a “who” – two of them to be precise – and while most of the folks in early 20th-century New Hampshire had heard about these two individuals, few if any had ever seen them in person.
The special guest that evening was one Helen Keller, accompanied by her nearly as famous teacher, Anne Sullivan, by then Anne Sullivan Macy, who made a career out of accomplishing the seemingly impossible: Reaching deep inside a confused little girl rendered blind, deaf and unable to speak before she was two years old, and teaching her not only to behave, but to “read,” “speak” and “communicate” in her own way.
It was an email I got the other day from long-ago Telegraph colleague Greg Andruskevich that roused my curiosity and drew me into the research room.
Greg made it easy – he had an exact date: Friday, June 4, 1926, at 8 p.m. He wondered if the then-Nashua Telegraph had any photos of Keller’s visit.
Well, yeah, but good luck trying to make out the details: In the best of circumstances, newspaper photos didn’t reproduce very well almost 100 years ago, and they get even muddier when the pages are scanned to microfilm.
Of the several photos that appeared with stories in the days leading up to the event, the clearest is a large, uncredited – and obviously staged – photo in which Keller has her right hand on Sullivan Macy’s face, “learning the news of the day” by “reading” Sullivan Macy’s lips, according to the caption.
“Helen Keller, Famous Blind Girl, In Lecture at First Church,” reads the headline, although Keller was 46 at the time.
Another story, which ran on Wednesday, two days before Keller’s visit, promised the Nashuans who planned to turn out for her appearance at the First Church they would become “acquainted with the greatest triumph of an individual over apparently insurmountable handicaps.
“From a child bereft of sight, hearing and speech, Helen Keller has developed into a woman of unquestioned charm,” the writer fairly gushed, seeming to suggest that becoming known as a “charming” woman one day was behind Keller’s perseverence, determination and remarkable can-do attitude in the face of her lifelong challenges.
At the time, Keller, Macy and an “eminent blind violinist and organist” named Edwin Grasse were in the midst of a months-long nationwide tour dedicated to raising funds for a $2 million endowment on behalf of the American Foundation of the Blind.
Now, two million bucks is a ton of money these days, at least to me; but raising that kind of dough in the 1920s would be like raising almost $30 million today.
Telegraph accounts of Keller’s Nashua visit describe a seriously packed house at the First Church, where the Rev. Earl F. Nauss was pastor at the time.
City officials of all stripes were there, of course, led by Mayor Eaton D. Sargent. Treasurer of the local fundraising effort was the prominent Nashua businessman Walter L, Barker.
About a decade after she came to Nashua, Keller spent a year or so in Scotland – get this – to teach Macy, the “miracle worker” who worked wonders with Keller so many years earlier, how to read Braille.
It was 1934, and Macy, ironically, had become almost totally blind. But student-turned-teacher gladly taught the teacher-turned-student Braille.
When Macy died about two years later, a Telegraph story called her “one of the most extraordinary of women.
“Behind the great personality of Helen Keller stands that of Mrs. Macy … (the two were) a classic in mutual devotion,” the story states.
“The lives of these two women are sermons to those of us of little faith.”
Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-1256,