As a child, Helen Keller first entered the public imagination as a champion for people with disabilities through her efforts to aid a poverty-stricken boy who was deafblind.
His name was Tommy Stringer and he was born in Pennsylvania in 1886. A bout with spinal meningitis as an infant left him deafblind. With his mother dead and his father unable to care for him, it seemed that Tommy was destined for one of Pennsylvania’s many almshouses where, according to Perkins’ 1895 Annual Report, “he would no doubt have dragged out a miserable existence to the end of his days.”
When she was 10 years old, Keller learned of Tommy’s situation. She decided to help him by bringing him to Perkins School for the Blind, then known as the Perkins Institution for the Blind. When she was told this would require money to pay his tuition, she replied, “We will raise it.”
The young Keller was a creative fundraiser. Her dog Lioness had been killed recently, and when news of the story broke, friends set to work raising money to buy her another dog. Keller asked that all the contributions be used for Tommy’s education instead. Money poured in from around the country.
Keller wrote later, “I shall never forget the pennies sent by many a poor child who could ill spare them, ‘for little Tommy,’ or the swift sympathy with which people from far and near, whom I had never seen, responded…”
The fund grew fast, and Tommy was admitted to Perkins’ kindergarten in 1891. Having spent his early years confined to a bed, Tommy was extremely feeble when he arrived. With support from teachers, staff and his fellow Perkins students, Tommy grew into an extremely active child interested in mathematics, construction and engineering.
Though his academic achievements were modest, Tommy had a lively and inquisitive mind. He was especially skilled at woodworking, learned to communicate with the manual alphabet and achieved limited speech while at Perkins.
In 1900, at age 13, Tommy began attending a public grammar school in Roxbury, Massachusetts, where he learned alongside other sixth-grade students. He also spent many summers on a farm in Wrentham, Massachusetts, where he built railings and plucked chickens, among other activities.
After leaving school, Tommy went to live with his guardian, Mr. Lee Edgarton, in Fulton, New York, where he earned money making vegetable crates for local farmers. He died on October 11, 1945 at the age of 59.
The legacies of Helen Keller and Tommy Stringer live on in Perkins’ Deafblind Program, which serves students age 3 to 22 who are deafblind, including many with additional disabilities, by taking a developmental approach to language, communication and curriculum. This program continues to be one of the few worldwide dedicated specifically to working with students with deafblindness.
The spirit of all the people, young and old, who made donations to help bring Tommy Stringer to Perkins also live on in the generosity of today’s Perkins donors, who make it possible for children who are blind, deafblind or visually impaired to receive a high-quality, life-changing education.
For more information about the history of Perkins School for the Blind, sign up for the Perkins Archives’ newsletter. View photographs of Tommy Stringer on Flickr. To support other children like Tommy Stringer who can benefit from attending the Deafblind Program at Perkins, make a donation.