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Grand Old Lady of 88 Conqueror of Handicap
R. I. Has First Deaf Mute to Read Lips and to Speak
Mrs. Jeanie Lippitt Weeden, Now 88,
Was Trained by Mother and
Dr. Alexander Bell; Later Sponsored School
Here and in Massachusetts
By Edith A. Nichols
Rhode Island well may lay claim to being the native State of perhaps the first totally deaf person trained in this country to speak and lip-read.
She is Mrs. Jeanie Lippitt Weeden, now a grand old lady of 88, whose life today in its rich associations of the present and past belies her age.
Daughter of a one-time governor of Rhode Island, sister of another governor and of a United States Senator and Representative, Mrs. Weeden is the exemplification of the early belief of an extraordinary mother that a deaf child can be taught to speak and take her place on equal terms in the world of the hearing.
Voice Almost Normal
Yesterday, in her sunny apartment I the Wayland manor, where she is surrounded by choice treasures that bespeak her inheritance from the Lippitt family, long prominent in the social and political life of Rhode Island, Mrs. Weeden spoke without restraint and in almost a normal voice of how she happened to be the person who was responsible for the creation of the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, and for the School for the deaf later established by the State of Massachusetts at Northampton, Mass., where many years later Grace Goodrich, who was to become the wife of Calvin Coolidge, was a teacher.
As she talked of the many yesteryears of her long life, filled to the brim with color and pronounced activity, it was to her mother that she gave credit for the release from the bondage of deafness and the impetus that directed her quick young steps toward complete emancipation from handicap.
Stricken at Age of Four
Mrs. Weeden was four years old when she was stricken. The Lippitt family was then living at the corner of George and Prospect streets in a lovely old place soon afterwards bought by Brown University. It was moved from the site and is now the home of the Frank L. Hinckleys on Angell street where she was feted a few days ago on the occasion of her 88th birthday.
Shortly afterwards, Henry Lippitt built a larger mansion at Hope and Angell Streets where Mrs. Weeden’s sister, Mrs. Duncan Hunter, still lives.
Telling the story of her remarkable education, Mrs. Weeden said yesterday:
"I awoke one morning totally deaf from an attack of scarlet fever. My wonderful mother at once announced that ‘my child is going to speak!’ and she set to work to accomplish it. She had heard that a child in Boston had been trained to both speak and lip read, so hurried to find the doctor she believed was responsible for such training, only to discover that he had heard of no such adventure in educating the deaf.
Mother is Tutor
"Undaunted, she made known that if there was a place her child could be taught, she, herself, would become the tutor. Day after day, I sat in front of her (and how well I remember it all now!) and imitated the motion of her lips. Every morning the cook would come into the room for her orders and my mother directed her to point to objects and say the names so that I would have additional aid in determining how a word looked as said by quite a different person.
"Little by little I learned to enunciate. Mother’s face would disclose when I was saying the word correctly. She would write sentences and bid me to do the same thing, and thus I learned to read and spell at the same time I was learning to speak.
Sister Takes Up Work
"After a time, my mother’s growing family required too much of her time to give the many hours necessary, so her sister became my tutor. All through those childhood years, I was not permitted to feel sorry for myself, and I have never got around to it yet.
"As soon as possible, I went to school with the other children in my set. It was Mrs. Shaw’s School, the predecessor of the present Wheeler School. I walked back and forth to school like any other child, attended classes as if my hearing was perfect and passed with good marks.
"In those days, a girl had to know Latin or Greek to get a diploma. My mother believed that I would have no use for either, and should concentrate on subjects that were helpful for the special education I personally needed. Her decision cost me my diploma, but my mother was right. Just as she was later when I decided to take up piano lessons. Mother thought I should not attempt it, and I gave it up. But I did study French and at one time, when we were staying in Paris, I always did the shopping.
Father Is Governor
"My father, Henry Lippitt, had become Governor of Rhode Island while I was still in school (1875). One of the measures he was particularly interested in was securing for his State a school for the deaf. His daughter had been taught to speak and take her place among those unhandicapped by deafness and he believed any child should have the right to education.
"I myself went to the State house and talked to the members of the General Assembly on many occasions to prove that education of the deaf could be accomplished without recourse to hand signs. My mother was determined from the beginning that I should not go through life flipping my fingers to make myself understood. Well, the bill passed and Rhode Island had its School for the Deaf.
"My mother had for sometime been convinced that though I had learned to speak, my voice needed to be drawn down from the top of my head and given a more normal placement.
"There was a teacher of voice physiology in Boston who had begun to make a name for himself, and I was sent to him as a private pupil. The orders were strict that I was not to be a member of any class of the deaf, so I met my teacher privately.
"That teacher was Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. He always arrived for my lesson with a curios box under his arm, about the size and shape of a carpenter’s box. That was the box that housed the first apparatus for reproducing the voice in his new invention, the telephone. At one time he sent me home with the news that he could no longer continue the lessons. He must concentrate on his invention, he said. My father was angry. My mother went to Boston with me to straighten the matter out – and I continued as a pupil. Later I went on to one of his teachers.
Asked to Explain
"I suppose the news of the success my mother had made in insisting that I conquer deafness, had sprung. One day a Mr. Hubbard came to the house and implored Mother to explain to him how she had trained me to speak. His daughter was similarly afflicted and if I could be trained, he felt, so could she. She was Mabel Hubbard, who was later to become Alexander Bell’s wife. Professor Hubbard was an associate of Dr. Bell in his early inventions, you know.
One of Mrs. Weeden’s keenest memories is of the time the Massachusetts General Assembly requested that she appear before a joint session of the two legislative bodies and demonstrate her ability to talk. A measure was before them for creation of a school for the deaf.
The request was met with prompt refusal. No child of Mrs. Lippitt’s was to be made a public demonstration, she declared.
Instead the socially distinguished Mrs. Josiah Quincy, of Boston, keenly interested in seeing that a school for the deaf be started in Massachusetts to obviate the necessity of sending deaf children from that state to Hartford, invited all the Massachusetts legislators to a tea at her home. Mrs. Weeden, Miss Hubbard and a boy who had been similarly trained received the guests as if they were at a party with no ulterior motive. The school at Northampton resulted from that afternoon’s affair.
Twenty years after the school was opened in northern Massachusetts, Mrs. Weeden was summoned home from California one day to attend graduation exercises. In those ceremonies, she and Miss Hubbard were impersonated as the deae ex machina of the institution. That occasion is still a cherished memory.
Mrs. Weeden said yesterday that throughout her younger years she was a devotee of the theatre, to which she went originally as part of her mother’s theory of education. Her father was one of those responsible for the erection of the Old Opera House and many of the most famous actors of another day – Booth – Cushman – Jefferson, were among his personal friends and guests in the Lippitt house. At least twice a week through the season she attended the theatre and learned her Shakespeare from the mouths of the masters.
She danced, she rode horseback, shared _____ everything in the experience of her more fortunate brothers and sisters – Charles Warren Lippitt, the eldest of the family, who became Governor in 1895, her younger brother "Harry", who was for many years United States Senator, her sister, the late Mrs. Charles Stedman, another younger brother, the late *R. Lincoln Lippitt, and her baby sister, Mrs. Duncan Hunter. Each of the Lippitt girls had an older brother to escort her to parties and dances, and the house was never free of the sound of young people’s voices, which she could not hear.
Nor did hear handicap of defective hearing hinder from her marriage. As she put it yesterday, "I married a man and six children." Her husband was the widower of her aunt, who had been a teacher.
Today, a widow of many years, she remains the titular head of that same family, managing its financial affairs, taking care of minute details with a good deal of the keen business sense that her father fondly fostered in her from girlhood to the time of his death. She is rich in the possession of 10 grandchildren, several great-grandchildren, 24 nieces and nephews. Their
Christmas cards and messages of congratulation on her recent birthday are today prominently displayed in her apartment.
Mrs. Weeden not only managed a large household in the mansion she formerly occupied at Cooke and Waterman streets, now the home of former United States Senator and Mrs. Richard Aldrich, but the historic old Weeden place at Matunuck, Willow Dell, still her county home. Once a tavern, the old house still carries the memories of one of its greatest sojourners – Benjamin Franklin, who always stopped overnight there en route from Philadelphia to his old home in Boston.
A charter member of the Colonial Dames in Rhode Island, Mrs. Weeden for two decades, until last year, when failing eyesight made it necessary for her to withdraw, served as historian. Her keenest interests still are in the work of that organization and in the locally famous sewing club that has met week after week for many years and which she entertained as recently as day before yesterday.
Caption With Photograph
Mrs. Jeanie Lippitt Weeden, widow of William B. Weeden,
whose total deafness from early childhood was triumphantly overcome through
her mother’s firm belief more than 80 years ago that a child need not suffer
isolation because of handicap. Above Mrs. Weeden is shown at an heirloom
desk in her apartment and at right in the stylish clothes of a little girl
of the 70’s when she was already far advanced in her education obtained
largely at her mother’s knee. Mrs. Lippitt day after day continued the
tedious process of teaching the child to speak and lip-read long before
that theory of releasing the deaf had become known to educators.
This document is made available free to the public for non-commercial purposes by the Rhode Island USGenWeb Project. This was transcribed and provided by Harriet Rosch <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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