Mark Twain once said, "The two most interesting characters of the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller." Although Keller was born in 1880, she lived until 1968, leaving an even greater 20th century legacy.
Keller refused to allow the dark soundlessness of her world to imprison her spirit. When an illness some called "brain fever" struck her at the age of 19 months, she was left blind and deaf. Since she knew only a few childish words at the time, she became mute.Yet Keller was a person of unmistakable intelligence, who, it seemed, was just waiting for the right teacher. When Anne Sullivan, who had been trained at the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, became her mentor, Keller was 7 years old and as difficult to manage as a little savage.
Sullivan gave her a doll and started spelling into Keller's hand, "d-o-l-l," but Keller failed at first to get the connection. She started spelling words, but Keller didn't know what they were, until one day Sullivan used an outdoor pump as an example. When Sullivan put the child's hand under the spout and let the water gush over it, she spelled "w-a-t-e-r" in her other hand.
Keller immediately caught the connection, and her education began. She touched the ground and asked its letter-name. Before the day was over, she knew 30 words and their meanings. After that, she learned the alphabet in Braille, then learned to read and write, both longhand and with a typewriter. Finally, she even learned to speak.
She went on to graduate with honors from Radcliffe College, then to write numerous articles and books as well as to travel to assist the estimated 14 million sightless people throughout the world. Keller became an institution. She said, "The calamity of the blind is immense, irreparable. But it does not take away our share of the things that count - service, friendship, humor, imagination, wisdom. It is the secret inner will that controls one's fate."
On March 13, 1941, she visited Salt Lake City to call attention to the needs of Utah's sightless. At a benefit held at the LDS Tabernacle on Temple Square, Keller was welcomed by LDS Apostle George Albert Smith, president of the LDS Society for the Aid of the Sightless; President Heber J. Grant leader of the LDS Church, who gave her a Book of Mormon in Braille; and Gov. Herbert B. Maw, who introduced her as one of the most remarkable women in America.
The Deseret News reported that Keller listened to the governor by placing her fingers on his lips, throat and nose. Maw asked her what her one wish would be. Her response was "world peace and brotherhood." She said she was "very sorrowful over the present world situation but would never lose hope that God will bring man to harmony with his universal plan of peace."
Keller, who lived at the time in Westport, Conn., also said it was "like coming home to be near the mountains. The mountain air is exhilarating, and I never feel as if I have limitations in the mountains. What a glory the Mormon pioneers must have had when they stood on the mountains and looked into this valley."
When an orchestra played or a choir sang, Keller followed the music waves along the floor with her feet. The Tabernacle Choir, under the direction of J. Spencer Cornwall, with Alexander Schreiner at the organ, rendered one of Keller's favorite hymns, "Lamb of God."
Keller placed her hand on a piano to feel the vibrations, and, moved by the music, used a carnation for a baton and led the congregation in singing "Nearer My God to Thee."
With her secretary, Polly Thompson, Keller gave a demonstration of lip reading. When the photographers' bulbs flashed, Keller said she could "feel them wink."
Her closing advice was eloquent: "Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the song of the bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of the flowers, taste with relish each morsel . . . Make the most of every sense. Glory in all the facets of pleasure and beauty which the world reveals to you."