In May, a mural commemorating Helen Keller and her achievements will be painted on the west wall of the Ascan Avenue underpass of the Long Island Railroad.
“When I was in first grade, I read ‘The Story of My Life’ by Helen Keller and was fascinated by her spirit,” said Gloria Piraino. “The very idea that a dedicated teacher could reach a young student with such difficulties was an inspiration. I became a teacher because of this.
“When I found out that Helen Keller lived in Forest Hills, I was so proud to have moved here,” she added. “A mural commemorating her life will bring her inspirational story to future generations.”
The project is being coordinated by this columnist, and will be painted by muralists Crisp and Praxis. The artists also painted the Ramones/Forest Hills Stadium/Station Square mural at the Continental Avenue LIRR underpass and a mural featuring Civil War farmer Ascan Backus and other Forest Hills Gardens founders on the east wall of the Ascan Avenue underpass.
Also supporting the new mural are the Queens Economic Development Corporation, Long Island Railroad, Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, who secured $6,500 in public funding, local residents and Portofino Ristorante.
“It’s important to recognize great people in our community, and it’s an honor to recognize Helen Keller,” said Steve Schott.
The mural will highlight Helen Keller's Forest Hills house, Braille, and her advocacy for voting rights and animals. A focal point will be the quote, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”
After contracting Scarlet Fever, Keller was left blind and deaf at 19 months. She was examined by Alexander Graham Bell, who referred her to the Perkins School for the Blind. At age seven, she met Anne Sullivan Macy, who moved in with Keller in Forest Hills and became her teacher and closest companion.
Keller learned to read Braille and print block letters. At age nine, she began to read lips and communicate. A graduate of Radcliffe College in 1904 at age 24, Keller became the first deaf and blind individual to earn a Bachelor of Arts.
In 1913, she began lecturing on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind. Her goal of removing stigmas associated with sight and hearing disorders took her around the world.
At her Forest Hills home, she coordinated large parties for the blind. She welcomed members of the Rainbow Division of the U.S. Army in 1917, and on the steps in Station Square she greeted 1,200 soldiers.
“The Star-Spangled Banner was more than 100 years ago dedicated as a symbol of freedom,” she told the departing service members. “We have since that time lived for that flag and for freedom, and I am proud to meet you, who are now ready to die, if need be for it, that there might be equal rights for all men and women alike.”
At the 1925 Lions Club International Convention, Keller challenged members to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness,” a mission the club still undertakes today.
In March 1926, Keller and Macy visited the Forest Hills Theatre to further the mission of the American Foundation for the Blind. In October 1931, with one of her Great Danes at her side, she spoke at a Mother’s Club meeting at Public School 3.
Keller and Macy attended Sunday services at the First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills, and also visited The Church-in-the-Gardens, where Keller lectured to the youth. Keller wrote a column, "Into The Light" for the Queens newspaper The Daily Star.
Mark Twain called Keller “one of the two most interesting characters of the 19th century,” alongside Napoleon. Between 1946 and 1957, she went on tour seven times and visited five continents, totaling over 30 countries. She worked with seven presidents and was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
In 1965, she was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame at the 1964-1965 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
“The millions of blind eyes must be opened,” Keller once said. “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.”