Every month has many disability-focused events – a day, a week, even the entire month. We mark Helen Keller Deaf Blind Awareness Week in June with the story of Vera Gammon, the woman considered to be Minnesota’s Helen Keller.
Helen Keller was a deafblind American author, educator and disability rights activist. Her life story and that of her primary teacher, Anne Sullivan Macey, is told in the movie and play The Miracle Worker.
Keller and Sullivan visited Minnesota several times, and some visits included Gammon. A 1925 St. Paul Daily Globe article described one meeting. “The stretching out of hands in greeting is probably as old as humankind, but a new meaning came into the old custom Monday afternoon . . . For, in a quiet room, two women who, friends for five years, had never seen each other or heard each other’s voices.” The writer described how the two women talked using their fingers to spell out words in each other’s palm.
So who was Vera Gammon?
Gammon was born in 1898. At the age of four, an illness left her blind. About two years later, she lost her hearing. One syndicated Minneapolis Journal newspaper article from 1911 stated, “At the age of ten she was little more than existing. She knew not a single word.”
Gammon’s life changed when she was placed at what is now the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD) in Faribault. In her first days there, she learned three words- ball, doll, bear. “Today, four years later, she has a vocabulary of over 3,000 words and is well versed in all general studies taken by school girls of her age. In addition, she sews nicely, makes all of the clothes for the many dolls she loves so, and operates the typewriter.”
The article describes her extraordinary sense of smell and how she used that ability to recognize friends and to know where she was. The article described her as having a sense of smell that is “perhaps the most marvelous in the history of humanity.”
While many newspaper articles were in the realm of my goodness, look at this woman with disabilities, Gammon was quite accomplished. She became the first deafblind student to graduate from MSAD in 1919, completing her education with honors.
Information posted by MSAD states that Gammon was known for her “bright mind and an insatiable desire for knowledge.” She expressed gratitude for her education and her “true and dear friends” at MSAD, saying “Only through my schooling have I come to enjoy all there is really worth having in life.”
She not only spelled to communicate, she also spoke and used sign language.
Gammon was a skilled embroiderer, lace-maker and crocheter, filling orders for shawls, lace-edgings, lace doilies and knitted articles, according to MSAD. Her sophisticated, detailed work won several prizes at the Minnesota State Fair. In addition to her crafting talents, she was an excellent writer. The Companion, MSAD’s publication, featured many of her articles. She was remembered for always being “full of vitality” and “cheerful and industrious.”
The Vera Gammon Conference Room, Smith Hall, at MSAD is named for her.
Gammon led a full and interesting life, most of it in St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. After her mother died in the 1950s, she learned to cook, do ironing and other tasks through classes at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind.
In 1963 she met with a young actress who was playing Keller’s role in The Miracle Worker at Theater in the Round.
She died in 1964. Keller, her friend and mentor, died four years later.
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org