Five famous figures you never knew had a connection to Perkins

What do a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, a female aviation pioneer and an iconic author have in common?

A woman with short hair stands in front of a small airplane.

Famed aviator Amelia Earhart is just one well-known historical figure with an unexpected connection to Perkins.

May 23, 2017

You can’t think of Perkins School for the Blind without thinking of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, two of the school’s most celebrated students and teachers. And you might know about Perkins’ first deafblind student, Laura Bridgman, who impressed Charles Dickens so much that he wrote about her and made her world famous. But did you know about these five other celebrities over the last two centuries who had a connection to Perkins?

1) Amelia Earhart

Before she became the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, then mysteriously disappeared on an around-the-world journey, Amelia Earhart volunteered at Perkins. She started out driving a young Syrian boy, who had been blinded by the explosion of a kerosene heater, to Perkins for lessons three times a week in the 1920s. Then, inspired by the teachers and students she saw there, she became a volunteer reader and an assistant to the director of dramatics. “I can’t teach them braille, but I can make them laugh, and I know that’s important too,” she said.

2) Louisa May Alcott

In 1887, Perkins opened the first kindergarten for the blind in the United States – thanks in part to a donation from “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott. Growing up in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts, Alcott was a major supporter of social causes like the abolition of slavery, temperance and women’s suffrage. She wrote a story, “The Blind Lark,” sold it to the children’s magazine St. Nicholas, and then donated her $225 payment to the building fund. 

3) Margaret Bourke-White

The famous LIFE magazine photographer – whose work was featured on its very first cover in 1936 – took many photos of the Perkins campus between 1931 and 1936. Bourke-White’s mother was a nutritionist at the school, which led the already-accomplished architectural photographer to capture black-and-white photos of Perkins’ buildings.

4) Henry David Thoreau

New England native Henry David Thoreau is a celebrated American author, best known for his book “Walden.” But before he found success, he applied to be an assistant teacher at Perkins in March 1841. Despite having references from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Josiah Quincy, the president of Harvard (and later the mayor of Boston), and having some teaching experience, he wasn’t selected for the position.  

5) Joan Baez

The famous folk singer was a house parent at Perkins in Oliver Cottage in the fall of 1959, overseeing “seven children, twenty hours a day, six days a week,” she wrote in her book, “Daybreak.” Baez, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, wrote about singing with the kids and happy memories of meeting them years later in Boston, including at one of her performances in a coffeehouse in Harvard Square.

Read more about: Perkins History, Volunteer