THE ARCHIVIST - William Joseph Marra
With a TTY, I can't see their faces.
I don't know if they're ugly or beautiful,
feeling good or worried about something.
Bill Marra is an 80-year-old Italian Leprechaun with a twinkle in his eye and a way of pulling your leg. If you can catch him in his lair in the basement of the Kansas School for the Deaf, he'll happily share his treasure: A vast collection of memorabilia about the KSD and deafness in general.
[Photograph taken March 7, 1986]
My father and mother were immigrants from Italy and they came to America in 1895. I was born in Kansas City, Kansas, and lost my hearing when I was five and a half years old from spinal meningitis. I went to public school for two years, but I never learned anything. The teachers left me in the corner to play with the toys. It was a waste of my time.
One time a piece of paper fell on the floor. I picked it up and saw the word "cat." When I looked through the back of the paper, I could see the word so I decided to fool the teacher. I traced over what I saw and spelled the word "cat." Well, my teacher saw what I had done and thought it was wonderful even though it was backward. I had learned at last.
Really, I never learned anything until I went to the Kansas School for the Deaf (KSD) when I was eight years old. I stayed at the KSD until 1925, when I graduated.
When I was a student at the KSD, we had a very strict supervisor named Luther Taylor who went on to become a famous baseball player with the New York Giants. After that, everyone started calling him "Dummy" Taylor. One time I was standing against the wall watching the boys practice football and I felt something wet on my head. It was tobacco juice and when I looked up, there was Taylor with his head sticking out the window. He had spit on my head and that's what made me bald. (Solemnly, watching to see if we believed him). I blame "Dummy" for that. I wanted to yell at him but I was so afraid of him because he was very strict.
But I still thank "Dummy" Taylor because he gave us a lot of good advice not to drink or smoke or chase after women, and I followed his advice. I don't smoke and I don't drink, but I'm weak for women. I married one (chuckles).
When I graduated from KSD and went on to college, I met Taylor and shook his hand and thanked him for all the good advice he had given me.
I went to Gallaudet in 1925 and stayed there until 1930 when I graduated with a bachelor's degree.
I had a lot of hair then and a lot of curls in my hair; I was a curly haired boy. The Gallaudet students would tease me by playing with my hair; they were always messing it up. I think that's what made me grow bald faster. Yes, I blame the upper classmen at Gallaudet and "Dummy" Taylor for this (ruffles his thinning white hair for evidence).
I never had a date with a girl during the five years I attended Gallaudet. One time the senior class forced me to call on a girl in Fowler Hall. I asked, "Do I have to?" and they said, "Yes. You've got to learn how to deal with the girls." So I went to call on the girl and she was a very bright girl, much smarter than I was. I was just a prep, a rat, and she was a senior and she kept telling me all this information and asking me questions and I would just nod and shake my head. I didn't understand what she was talking about. I was so happy when it was over. After that, I never again dated a girl in college. I remained unattached during my school years. I was a free man, but I advise others to marry younger, not to wait so late.
I remember my teachers at Gallaudet. Dr. Fusfield, Dr. Peet, Dr. Ely, Dr. Hall. Yes, I remember them well; they were fantastic teachers. I especially liked Dr. Ely. I was his pet. When Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees came to Washington to play the old Washington Senators, I asked Dr. Ely if I could go see the game and see Babe Ruth and he said, "Sure, go on." He'd always let me go on and he still gave me good grades.
I played football in college. I wasn't a great player; I was always on the second team. During my senior year I decided I didn't want to play football any more because I was about to graduate and I couldn't see the point. I was a good basketball player but I wasn't interested in trying out for the team. Coach Hughes urged me to join the team but I didn't want to because I was embarrassed at my hairy legs and didn't want all the girls to see them. So that's why I refused to play basketball. (June, his wife, rolled her eyes.)
I've never been back to Kendall Green. I haven't gone to Gallaudet for 56 years, since I graduated in 1930. When I got the Laurent Clerc Award for establishing the museum at the KSD, I wasn't able to go but my son, John, attended for me. He really enjoyed meeting all the deaf people there.
I graduated at a bad time, during the 1930s. That was in the depression years and I couldn't get a job. I wanted to become a chemist but when I went for the interview, the man asked me if I was married and had a family. I said no, I was single, and he said, "I'm sorry, but we have to give first chance to family men with children." So I was stuck with other jobs for a long time. I worked for the WPA, digging ditches and other manual work.
In 1936, I taught adult education classes for the deaf in a night school in Kansas City, Missouri, which were very successful. The night school in Kansas City led to job offers from several schools for the deaf and I accepted one at the Oklahoma School for the Deaf. I worked there for one year, then I moved to Olathe to work at the Kansas School for the Deaf and continued there as supervisor and teacher and worked there until I retired in 1976.
When I started work as a supervisor at the Oklahoma School, I wasn't much older than some of the students; in fact, one of the boys was my age. One time when I was at the Oklahoma School, I saw a boy with a shotgun. I asked him what he was going to do with it and he said he used it to hunt rabbits. I was afraid that if the boy got angry with me, he might shoot me, but I was able to talk him into giving me the gun. Other boys also had guns. I persuaded them to turn their guns over to me. Twenty-two boys, including the first boy, turned their guns over to me and I had them lined up in my room.
I started as a supervisor at the KSD, then I worked as both a supervisor and teacher--two jobs. When I got married in 1954, I stopped working as a supervisor but continued as a teacher. While I was working there, June kept flirting with me all the time and chasing me everywhere I went. I decided to marry her to keep her quiet (darts a glance at June to see if she had caught him). There she is (affectionately). I did it just to keep her quiet but now I don't know what I'd do without her.
I taught the slower classes. I loved those kids. They offered to let me teach the more advanced classes but I turned it down because I preferred the slower classes. My parents were from Italy, they couldn't read or write. I tried to help my parents but it was very hard and that's one reason why I enjoyed working with the slower students.
I notice with mainstreaming, there have been some changes. I don't support mainstreaming. Although some of the hearing students may learn a little sign language, social interaction is limited. In the schools for the deaf, since all the children are the same, they can associate as much as they want. They can fight with one another, kick one another, date, go to town, get married. Of course, in my time they weren't allowed to date off campus but we still had fun.
I decided to establish the museum here because I saw how the school was very careless in preserving the older records, pictures and oil paintings. They weren't taking care of what they had. One time, I saw them throwing a picture and some paper in the fire; I couldn't believe it. I saved them and I've been preserving these historical artifacts for 40 years. Then I set up the museum and that made me famous. Jack Gannon helped from Gallaudet College, helped me to become known around the nation. Several schools for the deaf got in touch with me and wanted to know how I established the museum. Rather than writing to each one of them, I cut out an article that explained how I had set it up and sent it to them.
People are still sending me items that they would like to have included in the museum, but there isn't much room left on the walls for more pictures. We keep them in storage in boxes.
I come here any time I want to. I work maybe a couple of hours if I feel up to it. I can't drive any more, so my wife drives me over here. Sometimes June gets tired of sitting around with nothing to do while I'm working and she'll start complaining about how she needs to go on home and fix dinner and all that. So I'll stop my work and go on home so that she can do her cooking.
I've had three people helping me and I've trained them in what to do so that when I leave, they'll know how to carry on.
We have two children. Rene is secretary to the superintendent of KSD. Our son, John, is living with his wife, Pam, in Dallas, Texas. He is working on his master's degree at North Texas State University at Denton, Texas.
Olathe has very good services for the deaf. They have TTYs in the hospitals, in court, the doctors' offices and some of the libraries. A lot of the work was done through Fred Murphy. We owe a lot of thanks to him for his hard work.
I don't use the TTY much myself. It's important to me to see the people in person, to see the expressions on their faces. With a TTY, I can't see their faces. I don't know if they're ugly or beautiful, feeling good or worried about something. But if I could see them on the telephone with a television, I think I would like that.
We enjoy television very much, especially now that we have a decoder. But I never liked watching "Dynasty". My wife loves to watch that show, so I have to sit there and give up my baseball while she watches "Dynasty." I like to watch baseball, basketball, football. I like to watch the "ABC News;" I guess I like the news most. The movies are awful; I don't watch them.
Department of Research and Teacher Education
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology
52 Lomb Memorial Drive
Rochester, NY 14623-5604
Dr. Susan Foster
Copyright 1999 Rochester Institute of Technology