Dressed in a red taffeta gown she could not see, Geraldine Lawhorn performed her one-woman show at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 29, 1960, for an audience whose applause she could not hear.
“To myself, I was proving that the way a handicapped person can throw off pity is to do the kind of work that will displace pity with admiration,” the Bronzeville woman once wrote about thriving in a dark, soundless world.
When Ms. Lawhorn died Sunday at 99 at Weiss Memorial Hospital on the North Side, her many friends and colleagues struggled to sum up the life of a woman who was a teacher, African-American pioneer, pianist, poet, author, fashionista — as well as a huge fan of all things Harry Potter.
“One of the most profound things I learned from her, which drew me to her . . . is that she enjoyed life, regardless of her inability to see or hear,” said Charita Graham, a close friend and longtime interpreter for Ms. Lawhorn, known to her friends as “Jerrie.” “She found a way to communicate with anybody.”
Ms. Lawhorn wasn’t born blind or deaf. Her childhood in Dayton, Ohio, and, later, Chicago, was filled with the sights and sounds of the arts. Her father at one time managed a movie theater with a vaudeville act. Her mother had a good enough voice to sing solo with small-town orchestras. Ms. Lawhorn learned the piano, ballroom dancing, the Charleston.
She was beginning elementary school when her sight began to fail.
“Even with strong eyeglasses or special lenses, I found it more and more difficult to read print,” Ms. Lawhorn wrote in her 1991 autobiography, “On Different Roads.” “At school, white letters seemed to dance all over the blackboard.”
It isn’t clear what led her to lose her sight and hearing, although doctors at the time had a possible cause: measles. By the time she graduated from high school, Ms. Lawhorn was almost completely deaf and blind.
She did not dwell on her limitations, nor did she discard her dream of becoming an entertainer. When asked how she could play the piano without hearing the notes, she explained that, among other things, she could still feel the instrument’s vibrations.
“Melody is a pattern followed by my fingers in the same way our feet move in definite patterns when we dance . . .” she wrote in her autobiography. “Every action in life has a rhythm and rhythms govern emotions.”
Ms. Lawhorn later attended the American Conservatory of Music, which led to recitals across the Midwest and then a two-year stay in New York. A highlight, perhaps, was a series of “monologues” in which she offered the audience a glimpse of her life in a Manhattan high-rise.
In the late 1960s, after she had returned to Chicago, Ms. Lawhorn taught correspondence courses — poetry and how to live independently — at Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Winnetka. The assignments were written in Braille, and then mailed out to students, who wrote back with their answers, also in Braille.
Ms. Lawhorn’s many accomplishments led to TV appearances, countless awards and even a letter in 1983 from President Ronald Reagan, congratulating her for graduating from Northeastern Illinois University.
Late in life, Ms. Lawhorn might still be found line dancing at a Christmas party or talking about some of her favorite fiction — J.K. Rowling’s series about Harry Potter’s wizard life.
“She had a theory: She thought Harry was dreaming the whole thing — as if he were trying to build his own world as a kind of escape when things were miserable,” said Veramarie Baldoza, a good friend of Lawhorn’s, and a deaf-blind services specialist at The Chicago Lighthouse.
If Ms. Lawhorn was ever miserable about her own lot in life, she never let on.
“As long as I was accompanied by an interpreter, I could take part in classes in swimming, bowling, ceramics, aerobics and social dancing,” she once said.
Funeral arrangements are pending.