From 1917 to 1938, Helen Keller resided in a seven-room house at 71-11 112th Street along with her teacher and closest companion, Anne Sullivan Macy, and her secretary, Polly Thomson. Today it is home to The Reform Temple of Forest Hills.
The 48-by-4 foot mural was designed by Crisp from Australia and Praxis from Columbia. It was spearheaded by this columnist with help from Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, the Queens Economic Development Corporation, and The Reform Temple of Forest Hills, among others in the community.
“Whenever anyone hears that Helen Keller lived in Forest Hills, it will create pride,” said QEDC tourism director Rob McKay. “Hopefully it will become Instagrammable, and people will take photos and get the word out for free on the Internet.”
The mural was painted at the temple on June 12 and June 13, and the public had the opportunity to get a sneak peek of the work and hear from guest speakers discussing Keller’s history and importance.
“Murals are not just artwork, but at their best tell a story,” said congregant Barry Wollner. “The Helen Keller story is worth telling and those who know her story will reflect on her life.”
Transporting the mural panels from the temple to Ascan Avenue almost didn’t happen in time, but a local Home Depot stepped up and donated their services.
“The Glendale Home Depot came to the rescue when there was no other way to get the mural panels there,” said assistant manager Christina Strongilos. “A great job to department heads Fredy and Drew, who made it happen.”
Reform Temple congregant Barry Joseph co-founded Girl Scout Troop 4281 last February, which consists of fourth and fifth graders who meet at the temple.
“This season they are working on a badge to learn more about their neighborhood and create something to teach others,” he said. “They came up with the idea of creating Helen Keller playing cards that could be shared with people who came to the mural painting events at the temple.”
Rabbi Mark Kaiserman organizes the annual “Helen Keller Shabbat of Inclusion” featuring a guest speaker overcoming personal challenges.
“Helen Keller was not Jewish, but embodied the blessings and values of our faith and every faith.” he said. “The idea of overcoming incredible obstacles and working together with the community and living her life to make it a better world.”
Other contributors to the mural included Red Pipe Cafe and Genesis Society and West Side Tennis Club.
“West Side came to Forest Hills in 1913, four years before Helen Keller,” said club archivist Bea Hunt. “She had friends in the neighborhood, including the Marsh family who were club members.”
Rob Hof of Terrace Sotheby’s International Realty attended the events with his wife Susanna. He shared his family photos featuring Helen Keller.
“My mother and her siblings would walk home from PS 3 and have milk and cookies daily with Helen,” Rob Hof said. “My grandparents were also dear friends. As a young child, my grandmother would read letters from dear Helen to my siblings and I.”
Lesley Silva-Kopec is a deaf-blind person who works with the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities to improve city services for people like her.
“It took many years to embrace myself as a deaf-blind person,” she said. “When I accepted my deaf-blindness, my burden eventually lifted off my shoulder and I felt free. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy and that people are 100 percent accepting and kind, but for the most part people are helpful.
“My husband is also deaf-blind,” she added. “We still experience oppression, but have to stay positive and support each other. I am so touched that Helen Keller was chosen to be painted on the Ascan Avenue LIRR underpass.”
Helen Day, vice president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society, said it’s important to remember the local connection to Keller.
“It is fabulous to bring Helen Keller back to life and create a special remembrance of where she lived for so many years,” she said. “She was a person on the world stage, and to come from so far away and become a part of this great community really needs to be remembered.”