ROCHESTER, NY–Robert F. Panara, a pioneer in deaf education who was a founder of both the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) and the National Theater of the Deaf in Connecticut, died here on July 20 at age 94.
Despite losing his hearing when he was only 10 as a result of spinal meningitis, the Bronx, NY, native’s strong reading and writing skills and his quick mastery of lipreading allowed him not only to remain in mainstream public schools, but also to excel.
He learned sign language at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, CT, then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in 1940 from Gallaudet University, the world’s oldest university for the deaf. He became the first deaf person to receive a master’s degree in English from New York University.
His long career as a teacher included stints at Gallaudet and the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). It was there, in 1968, that he helped create National Technical Institute for the Deaf as a new college of RIT. At the invitation of U.S. Secretary of Education John Gardner, Panara served on the national advisory board for the establishment of NTID. He also became its first deaf professor and established its English department where his son, John, now teaches.
NTID’s mission is to provide deaf and hard-of-hearing students with technical and professional education programs, complemented by a liberal arts and sciences curriculum to prepare them to live and work in the mainstream community.
In a letter sent to the NTID community, President Gerry Buckley, the president of the institute, said of Panara, “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.”
In 1974, he won the Eisenhart Outstanding Teaching Award. When he retired from NTID in 1987, the college named its theater after him and created a scholarship fund in his honor.
A MAN OF MANY TALENTS AND INTERESTS
Robert Panara gained national attention in 1957 when England’s Queen Elizabeth II paid a visit to the United States. On her trip, she attended a college football game in Maryland. Since she was seated far away from any reporters, Life Magazine recruited Panara and one of his students to read the queen’s lips through high-powered binoculars from 200 yards away. With their help, Life, one of America’s most widely read publications at the time, was able to scoop the rest of the press and quote verbatim what the queen said during the game.
Panara had a passion for baseball, and he often found a way to the sport into his teaching. He was also a writer, who authored the book Great Deaf Americans as well as a collection of poems, On His Deafness and Other Melodies. His poem On His Deafness won first prize in the 1988 World of Poetry contest.
A memorial tribute will be held September 12 at the Robert F. Panara Theatre in Rochester.