Maria Butler Spence is the daughter of George Stahl Butler (1899 – 1985). I caught up with her following a visit to Gardner Audiology where she was fitted with Starkey hearing aids. I wanted to learn something about her father, a pioneer in the education of the deaf. She explained she was born while her father was working at the Georgia School for the Deaf in Cave Spring. She spoke of some of the unique ways her childhood was colored by her father’s profession and passion.
“I grew up on various Schools for the Deaf. When I was 6 or 7 years old, we were living at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, and one of the dorms that housed 400 – 500 students caught fire. My mother made me stay on the porch of our house, though I was sure I could help if she would just let me. I remember standing on the porch and watching the deaf children lead the blind children down the long fire escapes on the outside of the three-storied building. The firemen worked on the fire, and the children calmly helped each other to safety. No one was hurt, though the fire did a lot of damage.”
“The deaf schools were boarding schools, and my play mates were deaf. We lived on campus and our family usually ate in the dining halls with the kids. Dad always signed and talked. Always! Even at the kitchen table at home. Mom signed, too, so we kids grew up signing and talking. I thought everyone talked that way.”
“I remember the school dances. The kids couldn’t hear the music, but they danced in time to the drum beats and the vibrations of the floor.”
When I asked Maria about her professional background, she responded with a laugh, “I think Dad’s biggest disappointment was that I didn’t go into Special Education. I graduated from high school in 1950 with a passion for math and science. However, the engineering department would not even accept an application from a female, so I “rebelled” and went to Michigan State, majoring in dance. You can’t get much further from engineering than that. This was on an academic scholarship! Later I got my Masters in Education and found, to my great joy, I loved teaching math and science at various grade levels. I also taught dance in a Performing Arts summer school program. Teaching must be in my blood. I retired from middle school, teaching lab science with all hands-on lessons.” My love for teaching must have come from Dad.