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December 25, 2003

School for the deaf to mark 100 years

From: Barre Montpelier Times Argus, VT - Dec 25, 2003

By Anne Wallace Allen


BARRE - It was lonely growing up deaf in Barre in the 1930s.

"None of my family members knew any sign language at all," said Bernard Van Funk, a retired granite worker who was born deaf in 1928 to a hearing family. "We were reduced to simple gestures, pointing at things."

That changed for Van Funk when he was sent to live at the Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro at just 4 years old. There, he saw children communicating with their hands.

"I had never seen sign language before; I was fascinated," he said.

At the Austine School Van Funk made friends, worked on the school farm, and played on a basketball team. He learned how to play ice hockey and to ski. The students went on camping trips, cut ice from the school's pond in winter, and helped farmers with maple sugaring in the spring.

"I loved that; that was the greatest," he said recently through a sign language interpreter at his Barre home. "We would get samples of the syrup to taste; we would help the farmers collect the sap."

In 2004, the Austine School celebrates its 100th anniversary. To mark the occasion, it is going to hold a large alumni gathering in the spring, and it's joining forces with the Brattleboro Historical Society for an exhibit at the Vermont History Expo in Tunbridge in June.

There's a lot to celebrate, said Van Funk. These days, a child who is born deaf in Barre - or anywhere else in Vermont - has access to a wide range of services, including interpreters and advocates. The law requires the deaf people have equal access to schools, jobs and public services.

"Things are a lot better now for deaf people," he said. "When I was a boy, people didn't know how to communicate with me; they were kind of wary. Now...there's a lot more positive press about deafness."

The Austine School, Vermont's only school for deaf and hard of hearing persons, was founded with the bequest of Col. William Austine, a retired Civil War officer and Brattleboro resident who died in 1904.

At first, the Austine School served both the deaf and blind. In 1917, it turned its focus to the deaf only; many Vermont-area blind students went to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., said Wayne Carhart, president of the Brattleboro Historical Society.

Carhart read newspaper clippings and pamphlets at the school to gather information for an essay. At the school's 1914 graduation ceremony, he said, Alexander Graham Bell spoke.

Van Funk said the state of Vermont paid for him to attend the Austine School. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was just 7 years old, but his father, a salesman, visited every month, traveling the pre-interstate hills of the Connecticut River valley. He knew he was lucky; some children's parents never visited.

"They were too poor, or they lived on farms and couldn't get away," he recalled.

When Van Funk was a student, there were only a few dozen others at the school.

Since then, student population has fluctuated. About 45 students attend the residential school these days, said Cornelia Jenness, a school trustee whose 38-year-old daughter attended.

The school is now called the Austine School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and it's part of a larger entity, the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, that includes consulting services, adult services and other programs.

The school still uses Holton Hall, a large building that was once surrounded by 200 acres of woods and farmland until Interstate 91 went in between the school and the town of Brattleboro.

Jenness' daughter Cathy started at the Austine School at the age of 10.

"They did all the normal things," said Jenness, of Chesterfield, N.H. "They had a Girl Scout troop, and they had a prom. It was just amazing to see the kids communicating so well and understanding."

Van Funk's father took many photographs on his visits to the school over the years, and Van Funk has saved them. He points out friends in the old photos - some he's still in touch with, others long gone.

He graduated from the Austine School's eighth grade and went back to Barre for high school. Those were difficult years, he said, because he couldn't communicate well without sign language.

"Looking back, it was probably not the best place for me," he said of the high school.

Van Funk met his wife, a New York City native who is hard of hearing, through friends. They communicate with sign language and have two grown children.

Van Funk worked in the granite industry in Barre for 40 years before retiring. For many years he was active with the Austine School, initiating an alumni fund and attending a groundbreaking for a new building on campus. He speaks fondly of the place where he learned to communicate through sign language and to play games like his peers.

"It was a really beautiful place," he said. "There was lots of time to play; it was a great place for me."


Copyright 2003 Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus