Connection to history

Brooksby’s Marjorie Snodgrass recalls meeting Helen Keller

Sara Martin
May 31, 2017

Helen Keller passed away 49 years ago this month, yet her inspirational legacy lives on. The well-known author, speaker, and activist, whose illness at the age of 19 months left her deaf and blind, was born on June 27, 1880, and died on June 1, 1968.

Marjorie Snodgrass, who lives at Brooksby Village, had the opportunity to meet Helen Keller at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., where Marjorie taught.

"The 1950–1951 school year was my first year teaching at Perkins," says Marjorie, who is not blind herself but began working with vision-impaired children at summer camps while she studied education at Oberlin College in Ohio. "I taught first grade and had eight students."

'A remarkable experience'

Keller was invited to speak at Perkins, and Marjorie's class, the youngest in attendance, sat in the front row. Polly Thomson, Keller's then-companion, accompanied her, since Anne Sullivan had passed away in 1936.

"It was a thrill for me to have the opportunity to hear Helen Keller, as both she and Anne Sullivan had been students at Perkins," says Marjorie. "She gave an inspiring talk about the value of education, and it was evident that she was an extremely bright person. Her voice was high-pitched, but we could understand everything she said."

At the conclusion of Keller's speech, she invited students and teachers up to the front to meet her.

"When I went up to her, Helen put her thumb under my chin and her fingers ever so lightly over my mouth so she could read my lips," says Marjorie. "Then she would speak her response. It was amazing that we could carry on a conversation."

Marjorie was initially concerned that her students might have some anxiety meeting Helen Keller, since they wouldn't be able to see Keller put her fingers on their lips.

"I had some very outgoing boys in my class, and they volunteered to go first," says Marjorie. "Then everybody followed. Sometimes Polly would spell words with sign language in Helen's hand, but it was beyond me how Helen could understand what we were saying. She learned all the children's names and said something to each one of them. She asked me where I had gone to college and about my background. It was a remarkable experience."

Marjorie taught at Perkins School for the Blind until 1954 and continued her career in education, intermittently working with children with physical impairments, until she retired in 1989.

"Throughout my career, I developed a great deal of empathy for those with obstacles to overcome," says Marjorie. "It's inspiring when you see how they surmount those obstacles."

Compiling an oral history

In 2000, Marjorie undertook a project to reconnect with her former students and colleagues from Perkins School for the Blind. She interviewed 36 people—two of whom were both students and teachers at the school—and compiled their oral histories into a book Echoes in Retrospect.

"It was fascinating to learn of the adaptations they'd mastered over the years," says Marjorie. "One of my former students said he could determine the location of a wall or a door based on the echoes he heard."

In October 2005, Marjorie and her husband Phil moved to Brooksby in Peabody, Mass., to be closer to three of their four daughters. 

"One of the things that appealed most to us about Brooksby is that residents can start their own interest groups," says Marjorie, who cofounded the community's creative writing group with three other residents, as well as the croquet club. Phil leads a weekly current events discussion at Brooksby.

Full-circle moment

In a full-circle moment, Marjorie had the opportunity to revisit her Helen Keller connection when friends invited Marjorie and Phil to visit them in their Sagamore Beach home.

"There was a gate at the top of the stairs, and I asked our friends why it was there," says Marjorie. "They told us that Helen Keller spent summers in that house, and the gate was installed to prevent her from falling down the stairs. It was amazing to think Helen Keller had been right where we were standing."