Colorado School for Deaf and Blind celebrates 145th birthday

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In 1874, two years before Colorado became a state, the oldest school in Colorado Springs opened its doors. This Monday, the Colorado School For the Deaf and Blind celebrates its 145th birthday. 

After nearly a century and a half, the school has quite a storied past.  

It was the vision of Jonathon Kennedy, whose three daughters were deaf. He left Kansas and settled in Colorado Springs in hopes of creating a specialized school his daughters could attend. He received a $5,000 grant from the legislature with a stipulation he had to secure land. Gen. William J. Palmer donated 13 acres atop Kiowa Street hill, where the campus still stands today. 

The first year, the school had seven students and three staff members. It was named the Colorado Institute for the Education of Mutes.  

“That’s what it had been called prior to that,” Austin Balaich said. “Back then, the name was fine. But now we, of course, had to change that.” 

Balaich graduated from the school in 2006 and currently works in the school’s media department. He’s been brushing up on the school’s history while working on a video to present at a special anniversary ceremony. 

The school accepted blind students in 1883, and it changed its name to the Colorado Mute and Blind Institute.

“Superintendent Kennedy said he wanted blind children to have the same opportunities at the school as the students who were deaf,” CSDB senior Quincie Mattick said. “That year, three students who were blind enrolled.” 

Ten years later, the school changed its name to the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind.  

In 1899, an interesting character moved in next door. Nikola Tesla built a laboratory on the property adjacent to the school. He was a Serbian-American who became a pioneer of electrical and mechanical engineering.  

“He had thought Colorado was a really cool place to be, because of the dry air, and it would really cause lightning,” Balaich said. 

The Tesla lab was near the school’s dairy farm. 

“CSDB used to have a dairy farm in which the students could go to work,” Quinton Webber, a 2016 CSDB grad, said.

At that time, shoes were made with small nails.

“The electrical currents would cause the students and the staff members to feel the sparks and crackles under their feet every time they took a step,” Webber said. “People also noted that the horses would rear back as they felt the electrical shocks going through their shoes.”

Webber also described one of the more famous graduates of the school. He was Paul Hubbard, a member of the very first graduating classes in 1889.  

“Graduated from here,” Balaich said. “Went to Gallaudet University in Washington DC. Started playing football out there.” 

“Not only did he play football, but he played quarterback,” Webber said. “During a football game, Paul looked around and noticed everyone was signing. And it occurred to him that everybody on the other team could understand his method of communication. So he called all of his teammates in close, so that the other team was unable to see what he was signing. And in that instance, he invented the football huddle.”

His picture and others can be found in the school’s two-room museum beneath the Administration building. The most prized portrait hangs upstairs in the hallway. It’s a painting of Gen. William J. Palmer.  

“Gen. Palmer had a good relationship with the school and often invited the students to his home Glen Eyrie,” Balaich said. “He gifted a painting to them and they hung it up in one of the buildings for 50 years.”  

The painting was almost lost forever when a fire burned the school to the ground.

“The fire was sparked from a wire igniting the Braille books in storage,” Balaich said. “The principal at the time realized the painting could still be saved, so he sent four students into the burning building to save it.”

Like the painting, the school is able to stand the test of time.  The school has added several buildings since then and renovated others while maintaining the original look of the sandstone used from the Castle Rock quarry.  

While the buildings seem to all tie together in their archirectuarl design, a few haunting stenciled images looking out of the Industrail building  don’t seem to belong.  They are black and white images of  the silent film characters Frankenstein and Dracula.  They have a history with the school as well. 

The famous silent horror film star Lon Chaney played the characters on the big screen.  His Grandfather was John Kennedy who founded the school.  His parents were both deaf and he spent most of his days growing up in Colorado Springs without saying a word.  He used American Sign Language and facial expressions to communicate.  This skill was credited with Chaney’s acting talent.  He went on to be known in Hollywood as “the man of a thousand faces.”    

While Chaney is immortalized on film, his grandparents’ legacy can be seen today atop of Kiowa Street Hill.

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