A historical view of Illinois School for the Deaf

It started years ago on a steamboat ride across the mighty Mississippi River. In 1838, Senator Orville H. Browning of Quincy made that water transport, meeting an educated deaf man from Kentucky on the way. The tale is told that Browning was curious as to how this deaf man received such an education, being that there were only five institutions at that time which gave education to citizens that were deaf. This fellow traveler made such an impression on the senator that he introduced a bill into the Illinois Senate to create what would become Jacksonville’s Illinois School for the Deaf (ISD). This bill was presented on Wednesday, February 13, 1839, as an act to establish the Illinois Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. Just 10 days later, the bill was passed. Governor Thomas Carlin signed Browning’s bill on February 23, 1839. It is noted that Abraham Lincoln was one of those who voted in the affirmative as a representative, supporting the bill.

Governer Carlin then selected a Board of Trustees to administer the school and figure out the first steps towards its conception. Board member Dr. Julian M. Sturtevant addressed this task by sending Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet a letter asking 13 questions in order to obtain Gallaudet’s input on starting the school; Gallaudet was the co-founder and principal for the first institution for the education of the deaf in North America, the American School for the Deaf. The original correspondences to Gallaudet were actually found in ISD’s Media Center! Dr. Mickey Jones (now retired from ISD after serving 19 years as the Director of the Evaluation Center) says, “Maybe 12 years ago, I went to the Media Center and looked for things that hadn’t been looked at for 50 years.” It was at that time that Dr. Jones discovered not only Gallaudet’s letters, but also found a large sleeve full of letters dating from 1838 to 1850, which included two pieces of mail soliciting advice from Senator Browning to the Kentucky School for the Deaf Superintendent John Jacobs.

Finally, the board had gathered enough guidance and was ready to build. The citizens of Jacksonville and the local vicinity collected $979.50 by 1842 to purchase seven acres of land for use by the Illinois Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. “In April (of 1842) the Board advertised for bids for the construction of a brick building, with stone foundation, 86 feet long, 56 feet wide, 3 stories and an attic high, to contain 32 rooms. The cost was expected to be under $12,000.” (Source: Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, December 1942) Complications arose and the first building for the school, which is now the (later rebuilt) south wing of ISD’s Main Building, was not completed until 1845.

The Board had chosen Thomas Officer as the first superintendent and the doors were opened on January 26, 1846, to four children. Officer was the Superintendent/Teacher/Principal – “He was the whole program,” says Dr. Jones. At the start of the second term, 14 students had joined. The school was growing. In 1855, the school had 107 enrolled students. However, there was a conflict of beliefs. Dr. Jones loosely describes the conflict as the board making politically-based decisions, while Superintendent Officer fought to have teachers who could sign and better the school. The end result was that by the spring of 1856, only 22 students remained and the board had forced out Officer, who had officially resigned on October 16, 1855.

Philip G. Gillett, of Indianapolis, was appointed the second superintendent on April 26, 1856. He was only 24 and initially added to the complex problems of the school, as the “town was scared of this young, beardless kid,” expressed Dr. Jones with some amusement. But, soon the school acquired a fresh, new board and “everything was put back on track.” The first female teacher, Elizabeth Lawrence, was hired in the fall. Seven new buildings were erected during Gillett’s term, the curriculum was expanded and Gillett “brought order to chaos.” The young Gillett ended up leading the school for 37 years, and at the time of his departure enrollment had climbed to nearly 500 students with 42 teachers on staff.

Over the years, the administration changed, the campus changed, the students changed, and even the name changed to Illinois Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in 1849, and finally to Illinois School for the Deaf in 1903. ISD is rich in so much more history than is written here. The school has certainly evolved over time and the face of the student has changed with the times. The Illinois School for the Deaf has become a home and resource for students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

(NOTE: A special thank you to Dr. Mickey Jones. Dr. Mickey Jones is retired from the Illinois School for the Deaf after serving 19 years as the Director of the Evaluation Center, but his fascination for learning about the history of the school has kept him not only connected with the school, but also has made him quite the resource on the topic. Over the years, he has compiled or re-discovered much of the history used in the writing of this article.)

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About the author

Kyla Hurt is a capable boondoggler trained in the arts; she’s also an accomplished event coordinator with experience from museum fundraising to art festivals. She enjoys puppies, sunshine, and good radishes – and wit. Wit is good, too.

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  1. Elaine D Cady

    Last lady on left side was Rose Mackey Dueshane who passed away last two weeks ago or so. Seems she was last one who was living till 93 years old

  2. Patricia Moehring

    My grandmother’s brother, Joseph Heath, from Henry/Chillicothe Illinois, was a blind student in Jacksonville, for a number of years. I think he was born in approximately 1878-1895. I do not know when he was enrolled there, but he did go back to Henry/Chillicothe area where he lived the rest of his life. I remember being told that he appeared at a World’s Fair and was able to tell people about what the day was like on a date chosen by them. I think I have also heard that he was musical. I have a picture of him as an older man with me as a toddler ( I am 82 now). I met a man in Chillicothe who knew him as someone who would speak greetings to you as they passed on a sidewalk. He recognized voices and knew to whom he was speaking.
    I am checking some old notes taken about 20 years ago and may have the wrong school. if this is the correct one, do you have any more information about this long-ago student?

  3. Wynne Linden

    Patricia Moehring, I don’t see that publisher of this article answered your question. You said your relative was blind. This is the school for the Deaf – huge difference. There is a school for the blind in Jacksonville as well – but a totally different facility and location. Jacksonville, small town that it was/is – used to be known for a lot of cool stuff – one was that it had the state school for the blind, the state school for the deaf, the first college for women, Illinois College one of the oldest in the US, and the state facility for the mentally ill (now gone). It also hosts Eli Bridge Co. the maker of the Ferris Wheel and the Cotton Gin, and used to have a beautiful intersection with a beautiful church on each corner. (also gone). At one time the streets were graced with the most beautiful Elm trees that formed the loveliest of green arches over each street but Dutch Elm disease took those away, but you’ll still see the moniker Elm City around town, rarely, but still.

  4. Robert Strohmeier

    Dear Sir: I would like to have some informations about 1939 National Basketball Championship was hosted at Jacksonville, Illinois. Also pictured what you have. Call me on vp 408-600-0908 ot email
    I am working a book on the history of the New Jersey/Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf’s Basketball, from 1900 to present. So far over 277 pages.
    I hope to hear from you.
    Thank you for your kindness. Have a nice week.
    Robert Strohmeier
    San Jose, CA

  5. Jaymie Chernoff

    Do you have information on graduates of the school? My great aunt, Bessie Lawder, graduated from the school in the 1880s. She was born in 1863.

  6. Holly


    Thank you so much for putting together the photos. Perhaps you could put more photos of the school. Your rmother was my teacher from freshman year to senior year. Really. I’m sad that ISD is on the tipping point of maybe closing its doors because enrollment has been declining the past 10 yrs or so. Proud to be an ISD alumni.

    Good work, Kyla! You’ve inherited good genes from your parents !

  7. Wanda Hoffman

    My Uncle Earl Hickey was a student probably around 1940. He was my dad’s twin brother. They were born in 1925. Would love to see pictures of him. Have often thought about visiting ISD to ask about the history and see if there are pictures of Earl. Thank you for running this article and the pictures! Loved reading about the school. Never got to know my uncle as he died in his teens. My dad cherished his twin brother and always carried a picture of the two of them when they were about 5 years old, in his wallet. Would love knowing anything about him. Thank you so much!

    Wanda (Hickey) Hoffman

  8. Darlene Neumann

    My Aunt, Vera (nee Winter) Maki was a grateful student at the School for the Deaf. She was born in 1921 and became ill with a really high fever and held her ears and screamed, according to my father, who was 16 at the time of the 1918 Spanish Flu. My father said that she was already talking, but the three girls in the family who got sick all became deaf. Aunt Vera died in November, 2015, at age 94. A teacher at her school realized how bright she was and convinced my grandfather to send her to the Jacksonville school. Aunt Vera said that teacher saved her life by convincing my grandfather to send her to your school.
    My Aunt Vera was thrilled when I learned to sign. We had a hearing impaired program at the school in Highland Park, Illinois, when I was the librarian there, and that’s why I learned to sign. Could you tell me the years that she was at the school, please? I don’t know if you took class photos, but I’d be happy to pay if I could get her school photo. She absolutely loved your school.

  9. Wanda Hoffman

    THANK you for running the picture dated 1939. My dad’s twin was a student at ISD in 1939. He died in 1941, so I never got to meet him. A guy in the back row on the far left, looks just like my dad! So I’m pretty sure that’s my Uncle Earl Russell Hickey! I’m so excited! I have never seen a picture of him as a young man!

    Thank you so very much! It brings tears to my eyes to see him as my dad, Verl James Hickey, loved his twin with all
    his heart! He never got over his death.

    Thank you for running pictures from that time period. Would love to see more!
    Wanda (Hickey) Hoffman

  10. Wanda Hoffman

    In the picture from ISD with the female students on the left and the male student on the right, at the top of the picture it says, “ M.I.S and Y.A.L.S 1939.” Does anyone know what that means?

    Thank you, Wanda (Hickey) Hoffman

  11. Julee Nist

    I was able to locate some information on your Aunt Vera. Please contact me for further details.
    Thank you,
    Julee Nist – ISD Superintendent

  12. Julee Nist

    Darlene Neumann – This is ISD’s current Superintendent, Julee Nist. I have located some information about your Aunt Vera. Please reach out to me. You can find me on the school website.

  13. Alison Jameson

    My great-great grandfather, Selah Wait, was a teacher at the ISD for 33 years (ending in 1882 when he died). I am looking for his article(s) in the school newspaper, The Helper, from 1881. Any idea where I could find this paper?

  14. Melvin Long Class of 1964

    This is a reply message for Wanda Hoffman. The acronyms of M.I.S. And Y.A.L.S. Are Mutual Improvement Society and Younf American Literature Society. Glad to help you out because I was a student at I.S.D myself furing the 1950s and 1960s. Thanks. Melvin Long

  15. Lindsay Dunn

    We are looking for information on the first Black Deaf Students to attend and graduate from the Illinois SD.

    I understand that of the first 8 Black Deaf teachers in the 19th century, one of them was from the Illinois SD. Could somebody furnish me with information about her? Margaret Brooks from the Indiana SD and Blanche Wilkins from the Minnesota SD also ended up teaching at segregated schools fo4 Black deaf in the South. This is an important history that we are trying to dig up and share.

    We as in Center fo4 Black Deaf Studies at Gallsudet University.

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