Haven History: The Apprehension of Helen Keller

By Lou Bernard in Arts & Entertainment

September 29, 2011


Lou Bernard/Eagle Eye

Question: What’s the difference between a famous handicapped woman and a Prohibition-era bootlegger?

Answer: Don’t worry. In 1926, the Feds didn’t know, either.

Back then,LockHavenUniversitywas still theCentralStateNormal School, largely a college for future teachers. On Apr. 27, 1926, they had a very special guest speaker, who dropped in by surprise. It all began with a young student fromScrantonnamed Constance Gilloegly.

She had written a letter to her uncle, the Reverend J.G. Gilleogly ofWilliamsport. In the letter, she described the admiration she and the other students had for Helen Keller, the inspirational blind and deaf woman. Unknown to youngConstance, the reverend was currently working on a project with the Rotary, assisting in raising money for the American Foundation For The Blind. And the guest of that organization was Helen Keller.

Reverend Gilleogly asked Helen to make a visit to the Normal School. Helen, who had a great admiration for teachers, agreed.

And that’s how, at about 3 p.m. on Apr. 27, Helen Keller arrived to speak to the Normal School students of Lock Haven, escorted by her two teachers. She was introduced by school principal Dallas Armstrong. Helen took the stage carrying a rose. The Lock Haven Express was there to report on the event, and they reported “It seemed to give her much pleasure.”

The students and faculty spent almost two hours, listening intently to Helen speak.

”Miss Keller’s voice is not unpleasant,” stated the article. “It is low and rather full, though a little harsh and colorless. Her words are spoken slowly, and sometimes the pronunciation is hard to understand. She speaks a syllable at a time and her sentences are sometimes spoken in a monotone. She has a vivacity, however, and an expressive mobile face, that livens her speech at times, reflecting the attractive and powerful personality which enabled her to break through the silence that tried to shut her in.”

Helen began her speech. “I am glad to talk to those who will become teachers, because I have had a teacher myself who was a light to me in a dark place. Before long, you will all go out into the world, teaching and spreading the light. I would like you to understand the problems of the blind and how to help them in the right way. We suffer not so much from blindness as from the attitude of the world toward us….When seeing people understand and give us the assistance we need, our difficulties will no longer be insurmountable.”

After great applause from the students, Helen took questions from them, which were relayed to her by her teacher, Anna Sullivan Macey. Helen placed her fingers on Macey’s lips and throat, “feeling” the questions. Macey asked if she would take questions from the students, and Helen smiled and said, “I’ll try and think, for once.”

She described her own college experience at Radcliffe, talking about how she’d enjoyed learning languages. She had, in fact, studied Latin, Greek, French, and German. Helen hated math, however, as she couldn’t work out the problems on paper, but only in her head. Helen demonstrated sign language for the students. She was asked about the most difficult thing she’d ever had to do.

Helen responded that it had been getting President Calvin Coolidge to talk. Coolidge was an unusually quiet man, rarely saying more than a few words at a time. He had been known as “Silent Cal.” Helen said, “But he did say a few words to me.”

Helen continued, talking about her trip. She had come toWilliamsportby car late at night. As the car approached centralPennsylvania, they were stopped by men shining bright lights at them and carrying guns. They climbed on the running boards of the car and ordered the women to stop and get out. They were Federal agents, looking for bootleggers, and they mistook Helen Keller’s car for a whiskey-smuggling operation.

Keller said it was ”an adventure in the small hours of the night…..They got a real shock when they found out their suspected bootleggers were only three lone women.” Her two companions, who had actually seen the guns, were less amused.

Nobody ever forgot that day. Not Helen Keller. Not the students.

And, I’m sure, not the Federal agents.

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