By BILL WINTER
It was a roll of fate's dice—a random meeting in an airport. Two vastly different people started talking in a departure lounge.
One was former Perkins School for the Blind student Gene Hubbard, who made a new friend that day. The other was a high-powered executive of a national corporation, who would never forget the exuberant teenager who was deafblind.
Now, more than 30 years later, that chance encounter is impacting the lives of every student in Perkins Deafblind Program. That's because the man Gene met in the airport made an extraordinary—and anonymous— half-million dollar donation to the school in Gene's memory.
"It's an almost unbelievable story," said Kathy Sheehan, executive director of the Perkins Trust. "It's amazing to think that one brief meeting could be the catalyst for such a remarkable act of generosity more than three decades later."
This story begins in the early 1960s, when Gene was born in Talladega, Alabama. He was deaf and had neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that can cause blindness. His family, unable to deal with his illness and disability, abandoned him.
Gene was placed with a caretaker who raised him as a son. He grew up to be an adorable child with unruly blonde curls, and attended the Alabama School for Blind in Talladega, where he learned to communicate with tactile sign language.
However, Gene's mischievous personality got him into trouble and he was expelled from school. He landed at Perkins Deafblind Program, where he quickly became a staff favorite.
"Gene was magical. The fact that I still get misty-eyed thinking of him speaks to the power of his presence," said Pamela Ryan, a psychologist in the Deafblind Program who worked with Gene in the 1970s. "His fun-loving nature and his endless curiosity led all of us who knew him to be better people and better educators. He helped us truly stop and smell the flowers, figuratively and literally."
At Perkins, Gene developed a reputation as a jokester. He was constantly hiding from the staff, climbing trees and riding tandem bicycles without hands. "He loved to get into trouble," said Carolyn Vaughan, stewardship officer for the Trust. "He was a daredevil."
But no one could stay mad at Gene. He genuinely loved people and embraced the world around him—frequently stopping to smell the flowers as he walked to and from class on Perkins' sprawling green campus.
In 1978, that random roll of fate's dice led Gene to an airport. He was traveling back to Perkins after visiting his caretaker, Thelma Lewis, in Alabama.
While waiting for his flight, Gene met an executive who was traveling on business for a major national corporation. With Lewis interpreting for him, Gene shared his story with the man—who was charmed and astonished by the youngster who refused to let his lack of vision and hearing dim his zest for life.
They eventually boarded their planes and flew in opposite directions, but the man kept in touch with Gene and Lewis. He got regular updates about Gene's academic progress and adventures.
Tragically, their friendship was destined to last only three months. Gene's cancer returned and he died shortly before the start of the next school year. He was just 17 years old.
When Gene's body was returned to Alabama for burial, the executive paid for two Perkins staffers to accompany him. "He made sure Gene returned home among friends," said Vaughan. The man also served as a pallbearer at Gene's funeral.
Decades passed. The story of a student who was deafblind and his friend from the airport almost faded from memory—until the Perkins Trust was informed that the man wanted to make an anonymous donation of $500,000 in Gene's memory.
"To say we were surprised is an understatement," Sheehan said. "But it's truly a tribute to Gene that he left such a lasting impression on the people he touched."
The gift will be used to maintain a high quality teaching staff in the Deafblind Program, Sheehan said.
"It's the best way to commemorate the life of a fearless student like Gene," she said. "This gift ensures that more students will receive the training and education they need to navigate through life with similar confidence."
A plaque honoring the anonymous gift was placed in the lobby of the Hilton Building, on Perkins' Watertown, Mass., campus where the school's Deafblind Program is located.
The legacy of Gene lives on in another way, too. After his funeral, students and staffers at Perkins planted a bed of tulips and three flowering cherry trees in his memory on a lawn near Glover Cottage.
Every spring, the trees blossom in a glorious cascade of pink petals. It's a joyful tribute to a student who will never be forgotten by anyone who met him—however briefly.