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Ask Gen. Palmer: Helping deaf, blind school

October 24, 2013 Updated: October 24, 2013 at 1:43 pm
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Editor's Note: This column about local history appears in Sunday's print editions of The Gazette, on the "Who We Are" page. Send questions to dave.philipps@gazette.com; 636-0238.

Question: What role did you have in establishing the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind?

Answer: I can't take much credit for it. A gentleman named Jonathan Kennedy arrived in Colorado Springs in 1874 with three of his own deaf children. There was no one to teach them, so Mr. Kennedy rented a house at Cucharras and Tejon streets and began a school with seven pupils.

My one small contribution was to give Mr. Kennedy 10 acres on the eastern edge of town, where he could build a proper school. In 1775, the territorial legislature gave $5,000, and a handsome stone building was erected. Along with lip reading and sign language, they were taught useful skills such as hammock weaving, broom making, shoe cobbling, chair caning and mattress making. My understanding is the school no longer teaches these trades.

In the 1880s, the state gave an additional $15,000 to expand the school and allow blind students to attend.

I kept close ties with the school, as I did with Colorado College and other institutions I felt were vital to the progress of our community. I remember once in 1907, a year after an accident in which I had fallen from my horse and been paralyzed, I invited all 175 pupils and teachers from the school to visit me at Glen Eyrie. The children arrived in 27 carriages, and we tried to show them a time that would be enjoyable for the deaf and the blind. There I was, an invalid, but a man who endeavored to still live a full life. Perhaps they took some inspiration from that. They toured the fragrant flowers in the greenhouse and played with my Great Dane, who, by the way, was the mother of the superintendent's dog. I played phonographs for them and displayed a moving picture show in the castle library. Afterward, we had a dainty luncheon at which I presented them with a recently done oil portrait of myself, which, I understand, nearly burned in the great fire at the school in 1950. Students rescued the painting from the burning building, and it still hangs in the school lobby today.

Speaking of silent films and Jonathan Kennedy, Kennedy's deaf daughter married a deaf man in town, and their son, who grew up learning to express himself to his parents without use of sound, became the famous silent film actor Lon Chaney. Quiet astounding.

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As told by staff writer Dave Philipps in Gen. Palmer's voice.

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