Helen Keller's Legacy
Keller's great grand-niece keeps her legacy and inspiration alive.
Helen Keller's great-grand niece, Keller Johnson-Thompson sat down with Kid Reporter Danielle Azzolina recently to share some insight into her famous relative's life.
Q: I was curious if there were family stories told about Helen that most people wouldn't know?
JOHNSON-THOMPSON: As you know Helen was never married, but she was engaged at one time and my grandmother told me that shortly after she became engaged she went to visit her sister in Montgomery, Alabama.
Helen's mother and her teacher Ann Sullivan weren't excited about this engagement. As a matter of fact they both asked her to break it off and to not be engaged because they really didn't want her to get married. I think one of the reasons is because with her deafness and blindness and her disabilities, they didn't think she would be able to care for a family, which was wrong I think. Anyway they weren't going to allow her to be engaged so Helen broken it off and she went down to Montgomery to visit her family.
She was engaged to a man by the name of Peter Fagan, who wasn't going to take no for an answer. I really, truly think he loved her so much that he followed her to Montgomery, Alabama, on the train and that night when the house was dark he climbed up the trellis to visit with Helen or at least to try to talk to her. But instead of getting Helen to the window, he got my great-great grandfather who wasn't very pleased. I guess he must have scared him off pretty bad. I don't know what ever happened to him, but they obviously never did get married.
Q: How do you think Helen was able to overcome all of the challenges she faced?
JOHNSON-THOMPSON: Number one, I think Helen Keller was a fighter. She didn't hide from her problems. She knew that to become a better person and to show other people that they too could overcome their disabilities she had to be a fighter.
I think that's just instilled within people. I'm not sure how you get that. I know you don't buy it; maybe you're just born with that. I think Helen was a very determined person. She didn't want to let the world down.
Also if you think about it, being deaf and blind for a number of years before her teacher came to her and showed her what language was, she was so excited and so thirsty for knowledge that that really helped her overcome her disabilities.
Q: What do you think is Helen Keller's greatest contribution to blind people today?
JOHNSON-THOMPSON: She showed them that they can live like normal people. That they can have dreams and have goals, and with hard work and dedication they can achieve those dreams and goals. She showed them they can make a difference in their own lives as well as the lives of people all around them.
Q: I read Helen's autobiography called My Life. I was surprised when I read her describing sunsets and things that are very visual. How was Helen able to describe and write about things she couldn't see?
JOHNSON-THOMPSON: That's an interesting question! Many of her close friends would describe things to her. She loved flowers and she could feel a flower and smell a flower and tell you exactly what kind it was. Her favorite flower was the rose and she knew all the different kinds of roses.
She really used her fingers to explore things and so a lot of times I think people who are blind and deaf and describe things like that really have to use their imagination and their other senses as well. They use their sense of touch and of smell and their imagination to really comprehend what something may look like to them verses what it would look like to those of us who can see and hear.
Q: What was most dear to Helen? Was it her independence, her ability to communicate, or helping others?
JOHNSON-THOMPSON: I think the thing that was most dear to Helen Keller was her ability to help others. I firmly believe that she believed that she was blind and deaf for a reason. She wanted to show other people, that, hey, just because you have a disability doesn't mean it's the end of the world. It might change your world, but it also might give you a new perspective on life that you never really thought about. So I definitely think helping people was her cause for sure.
Q: How does the Helen Keller Services For The Blind help people today?
JOHNSON-THOMPSON: Well the Helen Keller Services for the Blind obviously helps educate blind and deaf people. It also helps them do things like read by learning Braille. It helps them find jobs by putting them in touch with people in the work place. It instills in them kind of what Helen had in her: that we're like this for a reason, maybe it's not our choice but it's something we're going to make the best of. It shows them that deaf and blind people can contribute to society. It helps them do just that. It's certainly a wonderful, wonderful organization.
Q: What is it like to be Helen's niece?
JOHNSON-THOMPSON: Actually it's a lot of work! But it's amazing to me and I'm so happy about it. Just think, if Helen were alive today she'd be more than 120 years old and she is still inspiring people!
I have a school program that travels around the country to teach people about Helen Keller and her life. It's very rewarding that you can make a small difference in people's lives. That small difference can totally change their life.
That's just been a real blessing for me and those people, even though they don't know Helen Keller and even though I'm not Helen Keller. They still look to her fo' so much inspiration and so it's great being her niece. It's a lot of fun and it's just so rewarding to see how she still inspires people today even though she's been deceased since 1968.
Q: Do you have a favorite memento of your aunt's?
JOHNSON-THOMPSON: Yes, actually I do. I have a quote of hers that she wrote on paper to my great-grandmother, who was her younger sister.
It says, "Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light."
It's always meant a great deal to me just to think that somebody with two disabilities-deafness and blindness-could look at a really strong inner self, a really strong faith, to get through those things.
I also have some jewelry and other things, but I think those words that she wrote so long ago mean more to me than any possession she could have left behind.
Q: As a relative of Helen, what would you like people to understand about her and her life?
JOHNSON-THOMPSON: I would like people to understand that Helen Keller certainly didn't have an easy life, but she was willing to make the most of her life.
The most important thing to her was not being deaf and blind. I mean, of course I'm sure there were times that she thought, why me? Who wouldn't? But what I want them to realize is that she was dedicated to making the world a better place. I think if we can all just think to ourselves what can we do to make our neighborhood, our state, our country, our world a better place, wow what a better place this world would be!
That's what I want people to understand about Helen Keller. She worked to make the world a better place for the people who came after her.
Other Stories in this series:
- In Helen Keller's Footsteps: Rocco Fiorentino talks about how Keller inspires him to continue her legacy of education and assistance for the blind.
- Ambassadors for Helen Keller: Kid Reporter Danielle Azzolina explores life for the blind from her best friend to Helen Keller to a library for the blind in New Jersey.