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March 7, 2003

Loss seen as ‘ a blessing ’

From: Morrison County Record, MN - 07 Mar 2003

By Joyce Moran, Staff Writer
The late deaf and blind author and educator Helen Keller once said, “One can never consent to creep when one feels the impulse to soar.”

Credit Ruth and Sig Nelson for instilling in their four children that impulse to soar. And soar they have—even the three who were born with a 60 percent loss of hearing.

Sig and Ruth, after marrying in 1939, settled down for what they figured would be a typical life on a farm just south of Pillager. A year later they happily welcomed their firstborn—Ruth Ann. Not quite a year later they welcomed a second daughter—Betty Lou.

“As Betty grew, we found that she started talking before Ruth Ann did,” related Ruth during a visit last week in her Little Falls home. “When we mentioned it, my Mother said, ‘Oh I knew Ruth Ann was deaf all along.’ Perhaps others coming in for visits picked it up before we did.”

Tests given Ruth Ann at the University of Minnesota Hospital confirmed the Nelsons’ suspicion that their daughter did indeed have a severe hearing loss. And, while Betty was not afflicted with the loss, the couple’s third daughter, Jan, was born with it also. “We knew very shortly after she was born that she was deaf, too,” recalled Ruth.

“The doctors at the University said there was no hereditary factor involved in the hearing loss,” explained Ruth. “Their only conclusion was that the hormones and genes had not mixed properly.”

With Ruth Ann turning six, Sig and Ruth enrolled her in the Faribault School for the Deaf. “People thought we were cruel to take her so far away. But, there was nothing for her in Morrison County,” said Ruth. “Yes, it was hard for her the first few weeks; it was hard for us too. Thankfully, one of the house-parents at the school had been a friend of my aunt’s and took her under her wing.”

While Betty Lou attended the nearby country school, the Nelsons also enrolled their daughter Jan at the Faribault school when she reached school-age. The same was done for their son Jerry who arrived eight years after Jan.

“There were dedicated teachers there,” recalled Ruth. “The kids all adjusted well. At the time, they didn’t teach sign language; they taught phonics and how to read lips. I still say phonics is the best teaching method for reading. Oh yes, our kids were all top students at the school. And, they learned to speak well, too. Jerry gave the commencement address when he graduated. He did it both by speaking and with sign.”

Accomplishments didn’t end for the Nelson children after their high school graduations. Ruth Ann went on to Gallaudet, a college for the deaf in Washington, DC. Marrying a classmate she met there, the two moved to Alaska where she taught sign language to deaf Eskimo children. She now ministers to the deaf in the State of Washington.

Betty, the Nelsons’ only child with normal hearing, was the salutatorian of her class at Pillager High School. She went on to attend the Minnesota School of Business, and later accepted the position of city clerk for the City of Coon Rapids. While there she was instrumental in computerizing the city’s business. At one time she was called upon to address the International City Clerks Convention that was meeting in Amsterdam, Holland. After 30 years with Coon Rapids, she and her husband are now retired and live on Lake Alex.

Jan turned down the opportunity to attend Gallaudet College and instead chose to also attend the Minnesota School of Business. She went on to teach sign language at the University and was often called upon to give seminars around the country on teaching signing.

Jerry upon his high school graduation, opted to attend the newly-opened National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, NY. From this school he earned an aeronautical engineering degree. Then, being the first deaf person to do so, he received a Bush Fellowship which he used to earn a supervision/administrative degree. He has since started up Virginia’s first program for the deaf, helped develop pagers for the deaf while working for Wyndtell Communications and now works for MCI. In 2000 he spoke on the technology for the deaf at the World Expo for the Deaf held in Rome.

“I’m proud of my kids,” said Ruth as she continued her recollections. “No, we had no problems raising the children. And, I never got mad at God for giving them the hearing loss. In fact, I see it as a blessing. When I see what those kids have done for the deaf, I’m just grateful that they had the opportunity to be instrumental in it all.”

Continuing, Ruth added, “Our attitude was always positive. God gave us these children. People felt bad for us having to sent them off to school. But, no, we did it for them. Sometimes, other youngsters from the Faribault school would come out to the farm. It became like Grand Central Station. And, we also traveled to the school often. We didn’t miss anything that was taking place. Like, Jerry was in sports and we’d go down for his games. We’d just get someone to do the evening milking.”

Ruth and Sig’s children have also given them 11 grandchildren. And, the grandchildren have given them 11 great-grandchildren. All have normal hearing. “My deaf children taught their newborns sign language,” explained Ruth of how the families with deaf parents managed their hearing children. “And, the children learned to speak from the radio. Now, our great-grandchildren are learning to do sign language before they can speak.”

Sigfred passed away two years ago. Ruth, however, living in a townhouse near the old fairgrounds, likes to recall, “We met right over there, at the fair. I was the Extension Agent, helping the girls with their 4-H projects. He was in the grandstand watching the girls.”

Deaf History Month begins Thursday, March 13. It was on this day in 1988 that I. King Jordan became the first deaf president of Gallaudet College. The special month ends April 15. It was on this day, in 1817, that the American School for the Deaf opened.

Those who would like to read about the accomplishments of other deaf people might want to look up the biographies of Helen Keller, athlete Bruce Jenner and musician Ludwig Beethoven.

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