Inspirational deaf-blind teacher, poet retires
By FRANK ELTMAN
Associated Press Writer
PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. His memories of Helen Keller are vivid, if not entirely favorable: She had big hands, a forceful personality, and not much of a sense of humor.
But none of that kept Bob Smithdas from working with Keller, icon of the deaf and blind, to persuade Congress to create and fund the Helen Keller National Center in the 1960s. At the Sands Point facility, people who are deaf and blind – as is Smithdas – are taught a range of life skills from communicating to cooking so they can live wherever they want to.
Smithdas, 83, retired Friday as the center’s director of community education, a post that capped a 65-year-career as an inspiration and an instigator for improvements in the way deaf and blind people lead their lives.
“There have been two giant role models for the deaf-blind person over the last century: Helen Keller and Bob Smithdas,” said Carl Augusto, president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind.
In honor of his retirement, Smithdas has been cited in a congressional resolution sponsored by Rep. Gary Ackerman. In addition, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has declared Friday “Robert Smithdas Day” in honor of the western Pennsylvania native.
Smithdas was the first deaf-blind man to receive a college degree, graduating from St. John’s University 50 years after Keller got her bachelor’s from Radcliffe. He was the first deaf-blind person to earn a master’s degree (NYU, 1953). He has four honorary degrees from universities around the country.
In 1965, he was named “Handicapped American of the Year” by the President’s Committee on Employment of People Who Are Disabled. A decade later, he married Michelle Craig, who also is deaf and blind; she works as an instructor at the Keller Center.
“I feel that what I was doing was creating a pathway for other deaf-blind people to follow,” he said during an interview at a diner near his Port Washington home. An interpreter used hand-in-hand signals to communicate with him.
Smithdas lost his nearly all his hearing and sight when he was about 4 after contracting cerebrospinal meningitis. The language he had learned up to then deteriorated, and he was taught Tadoma, a method of communication in which the deaf-blind person places his thumb on the speaker’s lips and his fingers along the jawline to understand what is being said.
It led to an unhappy encounters with Keller.
“I had heard that Helen could speak and I wanted to feel her speak, so I reached out to put my hands on her face, hoping that she would speak to me that way,” Smithdas recalls. “But to my surprise she slapped my hand away. I wasn’t amused. I thought it was a crude gesture.”
Smithdas began writing poems as a youngster and has published two collections, “City of the Heart” (1966) and “Shared Beauty” (1983). The Poetry Society of America named him Poet of the Year for 1960-61.
He has also written an autobiography, “Life at My Fingertips.”
“I was a model, a representative of the deaf-blind community,” he says. “Even if I didn’t know it.”
Smithdas said he and others had been arguing for a decade for a place like the Keller Center, but it took a rubella outbreak in 1963 and 1964, which produced thousands of deaf-blind babies, to get the center opened.
Joseph McNulty, executive director of the Keller Center, remembers meeting a mother who was touring the facility.
“She came out of Bob’s office crying. She told me that when her daughter was born, and she learned she was deaf-blind, reading Bob’s life story kept her sane. She said, ‘Finally meeting him brought me to tears.'”
Journalist Barbara Walters, who spoke at Smithdas’ retirement luncheon Friday, said Smithdas was remarkable.
“Truly, the most memorable person I had ever met was Robert Smithdas,” she said. “I remember going to Bob’s house, and he cooked me a meal. I was amazed he was able to do this and didn’t burn his hands.”
In this photo provided by the Helen Keller National Center, Bob Smithdas, the center’s director of community education, embraces television personality Barbara Walters, and his wife Michelle Smithdas, at his retirement luncheon in Sands Point, N.Y., Friday, Jan. 16, 2009. Smithdas, 83, retired Friday as the center’s director of community education, a post that capped a 65-year-career as an inspiration and an instigator for improvements in the way deaf and blind people lead their lives.