ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Robert Panara, who lost his hearing as a child and became a leading educator of the deaf and a pioneer of studies of deaf culture, has died. He was 94.
Mr. Panara died of natural causes on July 20 at the Rochester nursing home where he lived, according to longtime friend and colleague Harry Lang, who recalled Mr. Panara as an educator whose influence went well beyond the classroom.
“Bob was passionate about his teaching,” Lang said. “He would often say (sign), ‘My classroom is my stage.’ I have never met a person so happy with life, so inspirational to both students and colleagues, and so respected and loved.”
Mr. Panara’s career included teaching at Gallaudet University and the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he was a founder of the school’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). He also was a founder of the National Theater of the Deaf in Connecticut. He was the first deaf person to earn an academic teaching position after graduating from the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains, New York, and the first deaf person to earn a master’s degree in English from New York University.
When he retired from NTID in 1987, the college named its theater after him and created a scholarship fund in his honor.
In a letter last week to the NTID community, President Gerry Buckley said: “Bob’s legacy is indeed vast. Thousands of students and graduates have been influenced by his genuine love of teaching and his generous sharing of his beliefs, values and knowledge.”
Born in 1920 in the Bronx, Mr. Panara contracted spinal meningitis at age 10 and became deaf, but the loss of hearing never deterred him. His strong reading and writing skills allowed him to attend mainstream public schools, and he often relied on classmates to take notes for him or mouth words so he could read lips, a skill that later led to an impressive coup by Life Magazine that is part of the lore of the deaf community.
When England’s Queen Elizabeth made a visit to the United States in 1957, she wanted to see American football in person and attended a college game in Maryland. The queen sat far from any reporters, but when the next issue of the magazine hit newsstands, it included several comments, in complete quotes, the queen had made during the game.
Life had invited Mr. Panara and a student to read the queen’s lips through high-powered binoculars from a scaffolding 200 yards away. They then relayed her words to Life reporters sitting nearby, who repeated everything into a tape recorder and later transcribed it.
Mr. Panara had learned sign language at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford and earned a bachelor’s degree at Gallaudet in 1940, where he wrote several papers that established him as a leader in the field of deaf education.
In 1965, Mr. Panara was invited by U.S. Secretary of Education John Gardner to serve on a national advisory board for the establishment of the NTID. He began his career there in 1967, becoming its first deaf professor, and also established the English department where his son, John, teaches.
For more than two decades, Mr. Panara enthralled both deaf and hearing students with his vivid interpretations of literature and poetry, often weaving his passion for baseball into his teaching.
Mr. Panara wrote “Great Deaf Americans” and a collection of poems, “On His Deafness and Other Melodies Unheard.” His poem “On His Deafness,” written in 1946, won first prize in the World of Poetry contest in 1988.
A memorial tribute will be held Sept. 12 at the Robert F. Panara Theatre.