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Keller Johnson-Thompson

Ask Keller - November 2005

November 2005

Are you curious about some aspect of Helen Keller's life, and haven't been able to find the answer to your question? Ask Keller Johnson-Thompson, Helen's great-grandniece. This monthly column features real questions from readers like you.

Could you tell me when and how Helen Keller died and where she is buried?

In 1961, two years after the opening of The Miracle Worker, Helen Keller suffered the first of a number of small strokes, which occur when the blood supply to the brain is blocked. She had gone to Greenwich, Connecticut to discuss some revisions in her will with her attorney, Jimmy Adams. As she and Mr. Adams proceeded toward the dining room, Helen suddenly complained about "feeling a little funny." She soon recovered and enjoyed a delicious lunch. However, upon returning to her home, Arcan Ridge, her caretaker, Wendy Corbally, summoned her doctor, who immediately sent her to the hospital for tests.

Her doctors soon diagnosed her first stroke. As more strokes followed, Helen's abilities became slightly more impaired. There were periods of alertness, but Helen's ability and interest in communicating with the outside world diminished slowly. Helen also developed diabetes, which made it more difficult for her to travel or even walk. She retired from public appearances and spent her days reading her beloved books. She still had friends visit from time to time, and many claimed that Helen Keller seemed to be having fun.

In late May of 1968, at the age of 87, Helen Keller suffered a heart attack. A few days later, on June 1, 1968, she died quietly in her sleep.

Death was something Helen had not feared; she was sure that in the life to come, she would be able to both see and hear. Helen's ashes were taken in a burial urn to the National Cathedral in Washington D. C. Her funeral was presided over by the Cathedral's dean, the Very Reverend Francis B. Sayre, Jr. The choir of the Perkins Institute in Boston flew down to sing at the service, and Senator ListerHill of Alabama delivered a tribute. The veiled urn containing her ashes rested on the high altar, and afterward there was a private committal service in St. Joseph's Chapel, where her remains were placed next to her beloved teacher's, Anne Sullivan Macy, and her later companion's, Polly Thomson.

In the end, Helen Keller died as she had lived: dignified and courageous, with her sightless eyes focused firmly on the future.

Could you tell me more about Helen Keller's family?

Helen Keller's father, my great-great-grandfather, Captain Arthur H. Keller, fought with the Confederate Army at the siege of Vicksburg. He was of Swiss decent on his father's side, and his mother was the great-granddaughter of Alexander Spotswood, the first colonial governor of Virginia. Arthur loved fishing and hunting and he was a great storyteller. Until 1885, he was editor and proprietor of the North Alabamian, a weekly newspaper. With the election of Grover Cleveland as President, he was appointed U.S. Marshall for the Northern District of Alabama. He was brave, honest, competent, and respected by his fellow citizens. Arthur would die of a heart attack when Helen was sixteen.

Helen's mother, Kate Adams Keller, was twenty years younger than her husband. She was his second wife; Arthur already had two sons, James and Simpson, at the time of their marriage. Kate was tall and fair-complected, with finely molded features and blue eyes. She was a Memphis belle. Her father, Charles W. Adams, a lawyer, had been a Brigadier general in the Confederate army. He was originally from the Adams of New England. Her mother was an Everett, also from New England. Mrs. Keller was very intelligent, was widely read, and had an excellent memory. She was witty and rather high-voiced. While the Kellers raised almost everything they needed on their farm, they were not wealthy. Although she had grown up as a Memphis belle, her life now was of a rugged frontierswoman. Kate would live to be in her eighties.

James Keller, one of Helen's older half-brothers, resided in Memphis, and did not reach 50 years of age; the other, Simpson Keller, married and became the first Highway Engineer for the State of Alabama. He had no children.

Helen's younger sister, Mildred Keller Tyson, my great-grandmother, married Laban Warren Tyson and resided in Montgomery, Alabama. She had three daughters, including my grandmother, Patty Arrington Tyson Johnson.

Helen's brother, Philip Brooks Keller, married and resided in Dallas, Texas.

Three generations of Helen Keller's family, including myself, still live in the small southern town of Tuscumbia, Alabama.

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