Obituary: Robert Panara / A pioneer in the field of deaf studies

July 8, 1920 - July 20, 2014

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Robert Panara could not hear the noise in Yankee Stadium the day in 1931 when Babe Ruth emerged from the dugout, strode toward him and extended his hand.

Mr. Panara, then 10 years old, was deaf. He had lost his hearing several months earlier — a casualty of spinal meningitis — and his father had organized the ballpark encounter hoping that the thrill might bring it back.

“Shaking hands with the Bambino was a dream come true,” Mr. Panara told an interviewer years later. “But I still remained as deaf as a post.”

Mr. Panara grew up to become a pre-eminent scholar in the field of deaf studies, a writer and poet and a noted professor at institutions including Gallaudet University in Washington and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y.

Mr. Panara died July 20 at a nursing home in Rochester. He was 94 and had heart ailments, said his son, John Panara.

Growing up in Depression-era New York City, Mr. Panara received few of the services or accommodations available today for deaf or hearing-impaired students.

Because he had post-lingual deafness — the loss of hearing after the acquisition of language — he was able to communicate through lip-reading and spoken English and continued his education in mainstream public classrooms.

He learned sign language after high school and pursued higher education at what was then Gallaudet College. Literature — his passion since he lost his hearing — became the focus of his study.

Mr. Panara taught for nearly two decades at Gallaudet before becoming the first deaf professor at NTID, which was established by an act of Congress in 1965 and is part of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

A Shakespearean scholar, Mr. Panara started the institute’s drama program and taught classes on literature and creative interpretation through sign language.

Beginning in the 1970s, Mr. Panara wrote articles and books that helped establish deaf studies as a formal line of academic inquiry.

The field “helped to open doors and open minds,” his biographer and friend, Harry G. Lang, wrote in an email. “People realized that deaf persons had been contributing in meaningful ways for centuries, and young deaf people should be given the chance.”

Robert Frederick Panara, the son of Italian immigrants, was born July 8, 1920, in New York City.

He graduated from Gallaudet in 1945 and received a master’s degree in English from New York University in 1948. Before joining the Gallaudet faculty, he taught at the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains, N.Y.

In the 1960s, Mr. Panara helped found the Connecticut-based National Theatre of the Deaf, which remains a venerable company. He helped translate into sign language Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” “Hamlet” and “Othello,” among other dramatic works, according to Lang.

In 1965, John W. Gardner, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s secretary of health, education and welfare, named Mr. Panara to an advisory board that helped oversee the development of a national technical school for the deaf. Mr. Panara retired from NTID in 1987.

United States - North America - New York - Lyndon Johnson - Rochester

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