New Forever Stamp honors educator, pioneer in deaf studies
Robert Panara (1920-2014), a pioneer in the field of deaf studies, recently became the 16th inductee into the U.S. Postal Service's Distinguished American stamp series on a Forever Stamp.
The dedication ceremony took place at the theater bearing his name at Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID).
Panara's contributions to Washington, D.C.'s Gallaudet University and NTID dramatically expanded educational opportunities for the deaf.
The 2-ounce stamp features a photograph of Panara taken in 2009 by Mark Benjamin, the official NTID photographer. Panara is shown signing the word “respect.”
At age 10, Panara was profoundly deafened after contracting spinal meningitis, which damaged his auditory nerves. During his 40-year teaching career, Panara inspired generations of students with his powerful use of American Sign Language (ASL) to convey Shakespeare and other works of literature. One of his best-known poems was the intensely personal “On His Deafness.”
“Our stamps are miniature works of art that highlight the American experience,” said U.S. Postal Service Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President David Williams. “In creating this stamp, our goal was to communicate Robert Panara's love and enthusiasm for literature, poetry and theatrical pieces. Poetry and drama came to life through his unique style of expression, Robert was famous for his ability to establish an immediate rapport with his students, through fluid, eloquent sign language which many described as 'sculptures in the air.'”
“Seeing my father honored on a U.S. postage stamp as a 'Distinguished American' makes me extremely proud,” said Panara's son John. “As a teacher and an authority in the fields of literature and deaf studies, he inspired so many people, both deaf and hearing, during his lifetime. It's an especially important milestone for the deaf community. Deaf people everywhere can celebrate this stamp that helps promote deaf awareness.”
NTID Professor Emeritus Dr. Harry Lang is the author of a leading Panara biography, titled "Teaching From the Heart and Soul: The Robert F. Panara Story." “I knew Bob well for more than 40 years, and as his biographer I can vouch that he lived that ideal,” Lang said. “He was - and still is - cherished by his students, colleagues and friends for his passion and compassion.”
Benjamin, who photographed Panara for a Signing in Public Spaces poster, said he was a much-loved personal friend and icon of the deaf community. “I had photographed Bob often for various events and awards, and we had worked on projects together here at the NTID,” said Benjamin. “It was an honor to try to capture the essence of Bob Panara - intelligent, creative, kind, funny and full of joy. I hope this image helps to convey his story.”
Panara's career in education
Panara attended Gallaudet College (now University) in Washington, D.C., from 1940 to 1945. In essays such as “The Significance of the Reading Problem” and “Poetry and the Deaf,” he began to consider the best methods of teaching deaf students and inspiring them to learn.
After becoming the first deaf person to obtain a master's degree in English at New York University, Panara returned to Gallaudet in 1948 to teach English. When the Gallaudet Theatre was established, he helped translate a number of plays into sign language, including Oedipus Rex, Hamlet and Othello.
In 1967, Panara was one of the founders of the groundbreaking National Theatre of the Deaf (based in Waterford, Connecticut), which provides deaf actors with a venue for thriving in the performing arts. He also helped found NTID and in 1967 became its first deaf faculty member.
Panara taught English to both deaf and hearing students at NTID for the next 20 years. At his retirement in 1987, he left a legacy that included the drama club he founded in 1970 and (named by his colleagues) the Robert F. Panara Theatre.
In addition to teaching, Panara was a published writer. He was one of the editors of "The Silent Muse: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry by the Deaf" (1960). In the early 1970s, he wrote influential articles on deaf American writers and deaf characters in modern literature. In 1983, with his son John, he wrote the book, "Great Deaf Americans."
Previous individuals commemorated as part of the Distinguished American stamp series include:
2000: General Joseph W. Stilwell and Senator Claude Pepper; 2001: Hattie W. Caraway; 2002: author Edna Ferber; 2004: athlete Wilma Rudolph; 2006 virologist Albert Sabin; 2006 medical scientist Jonas Salk; 2007: Senator Margaret Chase Smith and author Harriet Beecher Stowe; 2008: author James A. Michener and physician Edward Tradeau; 2009: philanthropist Mary Lasker; 2011: stateswoman Oveta Culp Hobby; 2012: actor Jose Ferrer; and 2014: aviator C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson.
(Posted 4/16/17; Opinion: General)
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