Lee Brody as a child. In October 2017, Bob Brody visited the school for the deaf that his father attended as a boy in St. Louis to try to imagine what life was like for him and to learn about education for hearing-impaired children. (Family picture provided by Bob Brody)

In 1931, a 5-year-old boy who was born deaf boarded a train in Newark, alone, for the 868-mile ride to St. Louis. There, he attended the Central Institute for the Deaf (CID) for the next 10 years, learning to communicate and otherwise function in a world that hears.

That boy, Lee Brody, went on to become my father. He also turned out to be a widely honored pioneer in communications technology among the deaf community. And he always credited CID with giving him an invaluable start in life.

That’s the start of the following post by Bob Brody, an executive and essayist and author of a newly published memoir, “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age,” who went to St. Louis to see where his father lived, studied and played as a boy. He visited the Central Institute for the Deaf, finding out how much has changed since his dad was a student — and how much has stayed the same.

Brody said his father passed away 20 years ago, but he is still searching for him.

By Bob Brody

In 1931, a boy born deaf and then 5 years old, boarded a train in Newark, alone and bound for St. Louis. There, 868 miles from home, he would attend Central Institute for the Deaf (CID). That boy, Lee Brody, went on to become my father.

In late October, I took a plane from my home in New York City to visit the school for the first time. There, I tried to reconstruct his boyhood as a student so far from home at so young an age. I also sought to find out how the education of deaf children has progressed since the Great Depression.

Max Goldstein, a prominent ear, nose and throat physician, founded CID in 1914. His inspiration came from a professor he met in Vienna during his medical training who was teaching profoundly deaf children to talk. The institute was established on the principle that every child in attendance should be regarded and treated not as a deaf child, but simply as a child.

The staff at CID taught my father to make the most of the 5 percent to 10 percent of the hearing he possessed. He would hold a mirror in front of his mouth to see how his lips, teeth and tongue moved to produce certain sounds. He would place his fingertips on his cheek or throat, and sometimes on those of his teacher, to feel the vibrations that accompanied such sounds. He also wore headphones connected to an “amplification box” and watched a teacher speak into a microphone, the better to observe how certain sounds corresponded with how her mouth moved.

I toured the school one weekday morning shortly before Halloween. So much has changed there in 86 years, and yet so much has stayed the same. Deaf children still come intimately face to face with teachers in a classroom. The school still emphasizes the basics of showing the kids how to listen closely, to read and to speak understandably but without reliance on sign language. The children are still taught, in effect, how to hear and how to articulate words — and, more ambitiously, how to function more or less the same as a hearing person in a world that hears.

“All children need to hear in order to talk,” explained Robin Feder, executive director of CID since 2003. Her mother taught at the school in the 1940s and 1950s, and she, herself, once taught there, too. “The words go in, then they can come out. Hearing children learn to talk from hearing parents. But deaf children need to hear their first word 10,000 times before they learn to say it. Hearing first is the foundation of all we do.”

But educating deaf children has taken quantum leaps since my father arrived at CID. For starters, the infrastructure is dramatically different. All the classrooms are soundproofed. The walls and ceilings are lined with acoustic panels, the floors carpeted, the windows fitted with double panes. Rooms are also slightly less than square, and also configured with alcoves, to prevent sound from ricocheting within. Students are thus better equipped to hear teachers, each other and any other sounds that originate in the classroom.

In 1918, CID was the first school to enroll students at only age 3, compared to age 5 before. The earlier deaf children start school, the earlier they can learn to listen, read and to talk.  It was also the first institution to establish a parent-infant program. The rationale: an estimated 95 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Those mothers and fathers likely have no experience with deaf culture, much less deaf education. “This is a curveball for parents,” Feder says. “They never expect to have a baby who is deaf.”

Some students, typically those without additional disabilities, start at CID at a few weeks old, then transition to early grades in a neighborhood school. Other students, often after receiving inadequate services elsewhere and falling behind, enter CID at a later age and now graduate by age 12 at the latest, in contrast to a previous limit of age 16. The average stay is four to five years, about half as long as it was in the 1930s. The sooner children leave CID, the sooner they can be “mainstreamed” with hearing students and have the opportunity to adapt to life in the hearing world as well as learn sign language if they so choose.

Now, too, technology plays evermore of a role in deaf education, even though hearing aids of one form or another have existed for centuries. Almost all CID students wear either a hearing aid or a cochlear implant, or both, the latter visibly attached to the skull and coiled into the cochlea to stimulate its nerve cells.

My father paid close attention to his teachers and studied hard. He learned to listen, read and speak, all without sign language. He went home on holidays to visit his parents and two sisters only once or twice a year. In 1938, the Newark Star Ledger ran a photo of him titled “Youthful Traveler. “And a youthful traveler, indeed, is Irwin Lee Brody,” the caption read. “Irwin, who is seven, returned to his Newark home last night from St. Louis — alone, marking the fifth time he has made a solo journey either to or from the mid-western city. He attends a private school there.”

Every Monday back then, CID required its students to write a letter to send home. The teachers proofread the letters on Tuesday, making any necessary corrections, and on Wednesday the letters would be mailed. “I’m wearing my Mickey Mouse tie today,” my father wrote to his parents in one. “The three little pigs are on my other tie.” In another he said, “I am a good boy. I study at school.” At age eight, he declared his career ambition: “I still intend to be a radio and television engineer.”

Goldstein eventually achieved sufficient prominence to become lifelong friends with Helen Keller. Indeed, she gave a speech at CID on its 25th anniversary, in 1939, when my father was in attendance. “Central Institute is to be congratulated on the splendid work it has done,” she said, “breaking down barriers in the way of deaf children and placing them socially on a level with those who hear.”

During my tour, I observed a 5-month-old deaf baby, wearing a hearing aid, tested for hearing. Squirming and smiling as his mother held him, the child reacted to sounds from musical toys. Most state have laws requiring newborns to be screened for hearing loss at one day old, thanks largely to pioneering research on detection instruments originally conducted at CID and elsewhere. Today new parents often know before they leave the hospital if they have a child who might be deaf.

In one classroom, several 5-year-olds lined up at a single, angled desk facing the teacher as she typed an email on a large Smart Board, much like a computer screen. They practiced the writing of letters home and reading in unison. In another, 8-year-olds seated at a circular table took turns, round-robin, talking to each other. “I like when you walk with me,” one told another. This approach encourages the children to communicate directly with peers rather than always go through the teacher. Down the hall, teachers asked kids to take specific actions with a set of play figures on the floor. “Can you put the pumpkin behind the bowl?” the teacher asked a student. “Good. Now put the pumpkin next to the bowl.”

Over the next two hours, I saw teachers, specially trained and certified to teach deaf children, perform miracles minor and major. They instructed children who pointed to a snack to articulate a request for it instead. They asked students to identify an image in a picture with a word, then, if necessary, corrected a mispronunciation. Once students learn a word, they’re urged to repeat it, and then to use it in a sentence.

Among the words learned on this Halloween, fittingly enough, were “skeleton,” “vampire” and “mummy.” One student structured the sentence “Pumpkins grow on a vine.” Throughout, the teachers said “good job” and offered high-fives. They often smiled broadly and gestured freely, acting out what they were saying, signaling attention and enthusiasm that might otherwise go undetected.

My father lived at CID for 10 years, until the age of 15, and graduated in 1941. He then returned home to his family in Newark and attended Weequahic High School. He always sat in the first row in his classes, he once told me, the better to follow the teacher.

On graduating, he returned to St. Louis to enroll at Washington University, among the first students with severe hearing loss ever accepted there. He took more notes than the other students, intent on recording every detail in order to refer back later. After a year he transferred to Rutgers University, among the few deaf students ever admitted there, too, and graduated with a degree in psychology.

I met for some two hours with CID alumni from the 1940s through the 1970s. Most of the graduates had lived in a dormitory there (it’s no longer residential). Back then, some families sent a deaf child to live on campus, only to move to St. Louis to be nearby. Other families simply relocated at the outset to stay together. Some parents made the sacrifice to live apart from each other, with the mother living near the school while the father stayed home, or vice-versa. Some students stayed at CID as long as 13 years.

“I learned to talk here, and to read, and I made new friends,” said Noel Hawes Mangano, class of 1974. “This was the right place to start at a young age,” said Scott Campbell, class of 1993. “I could communicate with other deaf children and never felt left out.” He went on to own and manage a UPS store. William Sheldon, who started at CID in 1940, is now a CID board member. “CID helped us all to be independent,” he said. “We’re all very lucky our parents wanted us to have a good education.”

From early on my father had tinkered with technology. His first invention, as a teenager, was an alarm clock rigged to shine a bright light in his face to wake him up in the morning. In 1969, he got an idea about how to apply his mechanical ingenuity to be of service to the deaf community. Toward that end, he focused on teletypewriters, or TTYs, devices long popular in newspapers, the military and on Wall Street. Only 600 TTYs were then in use nationwide.

He devised specially constructed modems so that TTYs could be adapted to operate over ordinary phone lines. Starting with a closet in our house that served as his office, he set about collecting, storing, refurbishing and distributing the TTYs to anyone suffering from hearing loss. They could then dial up anyone else to type messages on scrolling paper and hold a conversation.

Lee Brody as an adult with a teletypewriter, or TTY machine, used by the deaf to communicate, which adapted the devices to operate over ordinary phone lines. (Provided by Bob Brody)

Lee Brody thus helped establish a network that enabled deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans to communicate by phone with one another and everyone else for the first time. The TTYs spread throughout New Jersey and New York, then nationally. They materialized in homes, schools, hospitals, libraries, airports, local police precincts, fire and ambulance stations, federal agencies, the U.S. Senate, even the White House. By 1977, 35,000 TTYs were being used across the country. People with hearing impairments gained access to a large-scale lifeline to communicate independently — and instantly — over any distance. They could “hear” — and in turn, make themselves heard.

Today, CID is a 103-year-old institution with an illustrious heritage. Students from 48 states and 34 countries, including Australia, Russia and Japan, have enrolled there. The United States has about 30 schools for deaf children; CID is one of the oldest and biggest. And its influence is far-flung, especially in the teaching of teachers: some 1,800 educators of deaf children worldwide have taken workshops from CID via teleconference and downloaded its curriculum just this year.

Last year, CID educated 250 students, most of whom were 3 years old or under, with 12 graduating. The expenses for each school-age child runs about $50,000 a year. A few school districts contract with CID. The rest comes either from scholarships or at private expense. “We never turn a family away based on inability to pay,” Feder said: “Our goal is to prevent any deaf children from falling through the cracks.” 

The deaf community honored my father with awards for his public service, hailing him as a hero. Bell Telephone accepted him to the Telephone Pioneers of America, only the 29th member since Alexander Graham Bell in 1911. He once received a letter of congratulations on his accomplishments from President Ronald Reagan. After my father died, in 1997, the Stevens Institute of Technology held a memorial service for him, drawing 500 people to pay tribute. Gallaudet University, in D.C., a college for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, named a scholarship after him. Every two years, the Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc. gives an individual the I. Lee Brody Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Your father was a good leader,” Bob Crowell, class of 1965, told me. “Your father loved to be involved in the TTY business,” said William Sheldon, who entered CID in 1940 and knew my father for 40 years. “He always talked about TTYs. He never talked about anything else.”

Decades ago, deaf people often had little choice but to gravitate to jobs in manufacturing, such as at printing plants, where hearing loss was more advantage than handicap. Back then, a CID alumnus told me, the mother of a deaf child once asked a teacher, “What will happen when he grows up?” The teacher answered, “He’ll probably be a janitor.” But that student became an accomplished graphic artist for 35 years and put all six of his children through college.

The outlook for deaf children has improved vastly in every respect since my father graduated. Most notably, the deaf children I heard speak at CID sounded the same as hearing children, or close, a change that has evolved only during recent generations, with cochlear implants no doubt largely responsible. Recently, as a case in point, a teacher at a mainstream school told the parents of a deaf boy that he would probably never learn to read. Yet within three weeks of his arrival at CID, he started to read, if at a fundamental level. The walls of the gym at CID display pennants for colleges its graduates have attended. Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Columbia and Stanford are among the schools represented.

CID founder Max Goldstein once declared his intentions with words now carved above an arched entranceway. “We believe in the sanctity of childhood, in the divine right to play; in spontaneous, self-initiated activity . . . in the development of the individual to the limit of his ability; in restoring him to society self-reliant, self-respecting, self-supporting . . . we believe in modern scientific methods, in the cooperation of the physician, teacher and parents. And in all considerations, the child first.”

As it happened, I took the opportunity, at a country-club reception for CID donors, to introduce myself to Laurie Miller, Goldstein’s great-granddaughter. With no small excitement I ushered her to a private spot to tell her the following story. In 1936, with my father already five years into his stay at CID, my grandfather ran out of money to pay for his tuition. My father had to drop out and go to public school in Newark, where his academic performance suffered for the next year as a result. At some point, though, my distraught grandmother evidently wrote a letter to Goldstein informing him that her son was struggling to keep up in school and pleading for the institute to accept him back.

Goldstein quickly responded with a letter agreeing to lower the tuition rate for him. “I hope this concession in the tuition fee will make it possible for you and Mr. Brody to have Irwin return to CID next September,” he wrote, “for I know it will be for the child’s good and will contribute much to your happiness.” This act of altruism enabled my father to resume his education at CID for the next five years.

“That gives me goose bumps,” Laurie said, her eyes shining with tears.

The 1936 letter sent to the author’s grandmother by the Central Institute for the Deaf promising to lower tuition so that Lee Brody could remain a student there. (Provided by Bob Brody)

I never knew my father all that well, or at least nowhere near as well as I would have liked. He worked almost all the time, very much a solo operator, the TTYs an obsession of his that lasted 28 years. So I went to St. Louis searching for him, still chasing his ghost.

But at CID I found some clues. I saw the four-story red-brick building where my father spent 10 years of his boyhood. I looked into the windows of the dormitory where he slept and the classrooms where he took history, math and science. I peeked into the gym where he played and the cafeteria where he ate family-style meals at round tables with other students, much the same as at any boarding school. Here he became who he would be.

That building, constructed in 1928 and once slated to be torn down, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s being gutted and converted into studio apartments for medical students at hospitals nearby. It’s currently surrounded by rubble, scaffolding and cranes, preventing me from setting foot inside.

Even so, I imagined my father there, and the life he must have led. Streetcars would have passed the school, but he would never have heard the bells clanging. From the windows he would have had a view of the red-tiled roofs atop nearby Barnes and Shriners hospitals. Maybe he was among the mischievous kids who turned on a hose to flood the rooftop in winter so the water would freeze over and create a makeshift setting for ice skating. Maybe, too, he was among the pranksters who, as if going fishing, regularly lowered a shoe box by rope from a window to pedestrians at the bus stop below. The box bore a sign saying “Please help deaf children.” Eventually the kids would raise the box, now clinking with coins, and as local lore has it, most likely spent the donations on candy.

CID is still here after 103 years. And, at least as far as I’m concerned, and as long as deaf students are still learning in these classrooms, my father is still here, too.

Bob Brody visits the building in St. Louis where his father lived and studied as a child while attending Central Institute for the Deaf. (Provided by Bob Brody)