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March 14, 2004

Scion of famed educators Superintendent honors ancestors' efforts for deaf students

From: Central Maine Daily Sentinel - Waterville,ME,USA - Mar 14, 2004

Staff Writer

RICHMOND -- School Superintendent Denison Gallaudet draws his index and middle fingers above and below his eye to show the American Sign Language symbol for his family name.

The Gallaudet name is so important in the deaf community that it has its own symbol representing the monocle worn by his great-grandfather, Edward Miner Gallaudet, founder of what is now Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington, D.C.

Education of the deaf began in the Gallaudet family a generation before. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, sometimes known as the father of deaf education in America and founder of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn., the first permanent school for deaf children in the United States, traveled to Europe in 1815 to bring the most modern deaf education techniques back to his home country.

Edward Miner Gallaudet, who worked at his father's school, was invited to help establish the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, later renamed Gallaudet University in honor of his father.

Another son, Thomas Gallaudet, organized a New York Episcopal Church mission for deaf mutes and founded the Gallaudet home for deaf mutes.

Though his family is less well known in the hearing world, Denison Gallaudet said people who have knowledge of or connection with deaf culture often ask about his connection.

"I'll be somewhere talking to people and someone will say, 'Are you connected to Gallaudet College?' and they'll usually have a story. They'll say, 'I have a relative who's deaf,' or something," Gallaudet explained. "Gov. (Joseph) Brennan did that, saying he had nieces and nephews with hearing problems. It's a unique name and it's an important name in the history of deaf education in the United States."

As a fifth-generation Yale graduate -- Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was the first -- Denison Gallaudet was invited to represent Yale University at the investiture of Gallaudet University's most recent president. He also has been a graduation speaker at the Gov. Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth, Maine's only residential deaf school, which one of his students attends.

"Denison was clearly proud of the work that his two ancestors did and showed our graduating students that he felt connected to our school because of that. ... The impact those two men made on deaf education is immeasurable," said Baxter School Principal Mary Ellen Martone, who is deaf.

"The American School for the Deaf is still standing in West Hartford and has graduated many students since its inception in 1817. In addition, the school was the training ground for other schools for the deaf that emerged soon afterward. Gallaudet University has also graduated many deaf and hard-of-hearing leaders who have made a tremendous difference in the lives of their counterparts throughout the United States.

"Schools for the deaf ... serve as the foundation for deaf culture. Deaf culture is passed from generation to generation through signs of hands, much like word-of-mouth in hearing cultures. So the two Gallaudets' contributions to deaf culture is beyond measure," she said.

Quoting his great-great-grandfather at the dedication of the American School for the Deaf, Gallaudet urged 2002 Baxter graduates to continue their education.

"There is a sickness more dreadful than that of the body; there are chains more galling than those of the dungeon -- the immortal mind preying upon itself, and so imprisoned as not to be able to unfold its intellectual and moral powers. ... Such must often be the condition of the uninstructed deaf."

Gallaudet himself became an educator late in life. An investment banker in New York and Maine for most of his professional life, he came to Maine in 1979 and later headed Casco Bank until its sale in 1995.

When it came time for him to look for a second career, education was a natural choice, the 60-year-old Gallaudet said.

The Cumberland resident received his doctorate in 1999 from the University of Maine. He has been Richmond's superintendent of schools for five years.

His great-great-grandfather and Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, headed the two major schools of thought in deaf education during the 19th century, he said. While Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet promoted the sign-language culture that largely survives today, Bell believed the deaf should adjust to the hearing world, learning to speak and read lips.

"My great-great-grandfather was on the opposite side of the table to Alexander Graham Bell" in those formative debates on deaf education, he explained.

Gallaudet had a chance to see for himself how difficult the hearing world can be for uneducated deaf people while serving in the Peace Corps in 1966-68.

In rural Guatemalan villages, he saw deaf adults crying out in unintelligible, often frightening sounds.

"I had an opportunity to observe adult deaf mutes, and their handicap is just tremendous," he said. "You can see why some 18th-century people thought the deaf were mentally ill."

Copyright © 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.