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To honor her Aunt Ellen and Uncle Roy for introducing her to the field of deaf education, Ann Tennis, G-’43, established the Ellen Pearson Stewart, ’17, & Roy J. Stewart, 1899, Memorial Endowed Fund, which provides scholarship assistance to students in good academic standing from Nebraska, and the C. Ann Tennis, G-’43, Family Education Fund, which provides the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center support for family and community engagement through various strategies including educational workshops, training, and providing resources and materials.
“I was convinced over the years that it is best that children born deaf should start with sign language right away,” says Ann. “I am very much in favor of what they are trying to do. It is a worthwhile cause to support.”
Ann’s support of deaf children is part of a family legacy that spans more than a century.
Over 70 years ago, she moved from small-town Tekamah, Nebraska, to what was then Gallaudet College to pursue her graduate degree.
Gallaudet was an eye opening experience for Ann, who was born on a farm in northeast Nebraska. In her first and second grade years, she attended a one-room school house before her family moved to Tekamah, 40 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska.
“That schoolhouse was later closed and abandoned, however, it still stands (as of May 2016),” said Ann. “It is in the midst of a cornfield, now a home for birds and small animals who do not mind broken windows or lack of a paint job.”
At Gallaudet, she enjoyed the reminder of home. “We had a farm and a cow pasture on campus, near the girl’s dorm. I thought, ‘A farm in D.C.?’ That surprised me,” said Ann.
She also remembered the milk students drank in the 1940’s that came from cows grazing on green onions and garlic that grew on campus, giving the milk an unlikeable taste.
Today, Tennis continues to attend Gallaudet University Alumni Association (GUAA) events and even made a cross country trip to Gallaudet to attend the 150th Reunion two years ago. She was also on campus to witness the installation of Gallaudet’s first deaf female president, Roberta J. Cordano, last fall.
Her support of the University and its community members is thanks in part to her aunt and uncle, Ellen Pearson Stewart and Roy J. Stewart. Though her past immersion into Deaf Culture was limited, Ann knew she was well-connected.
“Aunt Ellen and Uncle Roy were very important to the deaf community,” said Ann. “Their whole life was Gallaudet. I realized that I had wonderful ancestors.”
Roy happens to be one of Gallaudet’s most loyal alumni. A huge Gallaudet sports fan, Roy was inducted into the Gallaudet Athletic Hall of Fame as a “supporter.” Roy was also a key member of the Gallaudet alumni committee that raised seed money for the construction of the Edward Miner Gallaudet Memorial Library and served as the alumni editor of The Buff and Blue for 30 years. Roy worked with the federal government for 50 years; his career included working with the U.S. Census Bureau’s Division of Statistics of Deaf Persons under Alexander Graham Bell, H-1880.
Roy was known for his preservation of films made in sign language during the turn of the 20th century, this in response to the growing concern of oralism by deaf leaders. This work began in 1914 when Roy assumed the role of chair of the National Association of the Deaf’s Motion Picture Committee; it would be his passion for more than half a century.
“He believed in sign,” says Ann. “And he believed in preserving movies made in sign.”
Ann’s first memory of Ellen was of her marriage to Roy in 1924. In the following years, Ellen and Roy would make summer visits. With every visit, Ellen would teach signs to Ann and her siblings, “She was a lot of fun; she paid a lot of attention to us,” said Ann. “She really loved her family.” Ann also remembers the Christmas packages they received from Ellen, which usually consisted of coloring books, crayons, and sweaters.
“Aunt Ellen was our Santa Claus.”
Ann graduated from Tekamah High School in 1937. Her family did not have enough money to send her to college, so Ann worked while attending Wayne State Teacher’s College on a partial scholarship for two years. There, she graded papers for an English professor and was a girl’s dormitory monitor.
She left Wayne State to teach at a one-room country school, earning $90 a month for a school year before enrolling at the University of Nebraska. During her junior year there, she worked for her room and board in a private home; during her senior year, she moved to a rooming house with her younger sister, who had enrolled as a freshman. To finish her studies at Nebraska, Ann graded papers for one professor, worked in the office of another professor, and typed thesis papers for graduate students. She also borrowed $137 from her Aunt Alice, a high school teacher, to pay off her student debt. Ann paid off her debt during her first year of teaching at the Maryland School for the Deaf.
To attend graduate school at Gallaudet, Ann took a daunting but exciting ride from Omaha, Nebraska, to Chicago, then to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. She did not have a Pullman berth; instead, she rode in coach, crowded with servicemen, but with no complaints. “I was traveling; I was going places,” said Ann.
It was Ellen who met Ann at Union Station and brought her to Kendall Green for the first time.
“I was surprised at the old brick buildings and the fact that they had houses for the professors,” said Ann. “Aunt Ellen would introduce me to everybody. It was beautiful.”
Ellen was a formative influence on Ann; she would spend 37 years of her 42-year career in deaf education at the Kendall School. It was also Aunt Ellen’s invitation to attend the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf at the Missouri School for the Deaf in Fulton, Missouri in June of 1941 that would eventually launch Ann on her own 31- year career in deaf education.
The convention made an impression on Ann. She saw how deaf children were taught, met other deaf teachers, and was immersed in a signing environment. It was then that Ann decided to become a deaf educator; later she would teach at deaf schools in Maryland, Illinois, and California (Berkeley), where she retired in 1974.
At Gallaudet in 1942, Ann enrolled in the Normal School, which was an educator training program for hearing students. During the summer, Ann worked with Dr. Percival Hall, G-1893, Gallaudet’s second president, taking care of duties such as shorthand and typing. She also remembers having afternoon tea and taking walks with Dr. Elizabeth Peet, H-’23, a professor and Dean of Women, in the evenings.
“I was in heaven,” said Ann. “I found Gallaudet to be just a wonderful place. I enjoyed my year very much.”
Years later, Ann met her husband, Barry, at the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked part-time as a reader for blind students. Barry, who was blinded during WWII’s Battle of the Bulge, became a realtor, beginning his career by purchasing a house with several apartment units and renting them to disabled individuals with disabilities during a time when discriminatory actions made it difficult for them to gain housing. Together, they had a son named Jon.
Jon and his wife, Terri, accompanied Ann on her most recent trip to Gallaudet. During their visit, the Tennis family toured the Clerc Center. They were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a video featuring Kendall students wishing Ann a happy birthday and thanking her for her many years of generous support. When asked about his mother, Jon said, “She’s a rock star. It’s really great to see that she is so well-revered, and rightfully so.” This reverence for Ann was shown during her visit to the Gallaudet Archives during inauguration week. During the interview with her for Gallaudet Today, Dr. Frank Turk, Jr., ’52, considered the father of deaf youth leadership, stopped by to give Ann a quick embrace, telling her:
“You are as beautiful as ever.”
Dr. Ronald J. Stern, ’73, vice president of the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, embraced Ann’s visit to campus and expressed the importance of her generous endowments to the center.
“We all know that every child’s first classroom is at home and that family involvement is vital to student success,” said Stern. “Ann and her family’s steadfast support for Clerc Center students and families over the years is an affirmation of the strong influence of family and education in their own lives. It was a delight to show Ann and her family around KDES and to spend time with them on the Gallaudet campus.”
Ann has a family legacy at Gallaudet as do many alumni. Nevertheless, alumni often refer to Gallaudet as “family” and it’s usually in reference to whom they’ve shared their experiences with at Gallaudet. Ann’s story reminds us that our alumni “family” is multigenerational. And like a family, our values are passed down from one generation to the next.
Ellen and Roy were graduates from another century. Yet the values they instilled in Ann are the same values President Cordano spoke so passionately about during her installation ceremony speech.
“Our identity as signers is what brings us together. It’s what binds us together as a community,” said Cordano. “It is important to our future that we define our values and our principles as a bilingual community… From that, we will preserve our beautiful language and the cultural environment that we have here at Gallaudet.”
At the age of 97, Ann continues to do her part as an alumna by being a generous and loyal donor. No matter how big or small, it is the generosity of our friends and alumni that enable us to continue passing on our values well into the century to future alumni.
If you would like to make a donation please visit www.giving.gallaudet.edu.
If you would like to talk with someone about how to make a gift, email giving@ gallaudet.edu, or call (202) 250-2943 (videophone) or (202) 651-5410 (voice).
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Alumnus Timel Benton has signed a contract with the Bay Area Panthers of the Indoor Football League (IFL). Benton, who graduated last month, is the first Gallaudet Bison to sign a professional football contract since Tony Tatum signed on with the Utah Blaze in the now-disbanded Arena Football League (AFL) in May 2013. Benton was...
James Caverly, ’11, who plays Theo Dimas in Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, will play Professor Harold Hill in the Olney Theatre Center’s summer production of Meredith Willson’s Tony-winning musical The Music Man, which opens tonight and runs through July 23. The show’s official opening is on Thursday, June 23. Sandra Mae Frank, ’13,...
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