Helen Keller was one of the most famous women in America in the early 20th century. Both deaf and blind, she overcame her disabilities to become a bestselling author and popular lecturer. Keller’s tutor, Anne Sullivan, became rather famous in her own right, for her role in training the young Keller. In 1962, Anne Bancroft won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. Less well-known, but just as significant, is the man who put Keller and Sullivan together — Michael Anagnos, an Orthodox immigrant from Greece, and the longtime head of Boston’s Perkins Institute for the Blind.
Anagnos (shortened from Anagnostopoulos) was born in a mountain village in Epirus in 1837. The son of a peasant, he grew up tending his father’s flocks and studying in the village school. He eventually earned a scholarship to a better school, and ultimately was admitted to the University of Athens. There, he was so poor that he couldn’t afford textbooks, and had to copy the required readings by hand. He worked his way through college, graduated, and then studied law.
After law school, Anagnos began a career, not in law, but in journalism. In his mid-20s, he became editor of an Athens newspaper, Ethnophylax (The National Guard). From that post, Anagnos opposed the government of King Otho, which led to his arrest and imprisonment. In 1866, he supported the cause of revolutionaries in Crete. As it turned out, a certain American, Dr. Samuel Howe, was also a supporter of the Cretan revolutionaries, and had come to the region to engage in relief efforts. Howe hired Anagnos to be his assistant, and when Howe returned to the US, Anagnos joined him.
Dr. Howe happened to be the founder of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, in Boston, and he gave Anagnos a position as teacher of Greek and Latin, and also the job of private tutor to the Howe family. Before long, Anagnos and Howe’s daughter Julia had fallen in love, and they were married in 1870. As Dr. Howe’s health declined, he gave Anagnos more and more authority at the Perkins Institute, and after Howe’s death, Anagnos became the Institute’s head.
Anagnos was perfect for the job. Right away, he raised $100,000 (roughly $2 million today) to publish books for the blind, and he made sure that every public library in Massachusetts had copies. He set up vocational training programs for blind people, and started a kindergarten for blind children (raising another $100,000 to keep it going). Helen Keller was the Institute’s most famous product: she was sent to Anagnos by Alexander Graham Bell, and Anagnos paired her with 20-year-old former student Anne Sullivan, who herself was visually impaired. Anagnos led the Perkins Institute for thirty years, affecting the lives of countless blind individuals. After his death, one student offered this remembrance (reprinted in Annie S. Beard’s Our Foreign Born Citizens, 1922, which has been a major source for this article):
His strength comforted our weakness, his firmness overcame our wavering ideas, his power smoothed away our obstacles, his noble unselfishness put to shame our petty differences of opinion, and his untiring devotion led us all to do our little as well as we could… Better than all, he taught us to the best of our ability to be men and women in our own homes.
Besides his role at the Perkins Institute, Anagnos was a towering figure in Boston’s Greek community. He also served as president of the National Union of Greeks in the United States, and may well have been the most famous Greek person in America in his day. He made many trips back to Europe, where he donated tens of thousands of dollars to fund schools in Greece, Turkey, Serbia, and Romania. After Anagnos’ death in 1906 on a visit to Romania, the Boston Evening Herald (7/16/1906) published a tribute from T.T. Timayenis of the Boston Greek community:
He was the man who taught the Greeks of America to learn and adopt everything that is good in the American character, the only man whom all Greeks revered and implicitly obeyed; the man who did good for the sake of the good; the man who conceived the idea of establishing a Greek school in Boston; the man who expected every Greek to do his duty toward his adopted country — America.
Here is an account of Anagnos’ funeral, from the Boston Globe (7/16/1906):
The little Greek church at Kneeland and Tyler sts was crowded yesterday forenoon in memory of Michael Anagnos, who had done so much in the latter years of his life to bring his fellow-countrymen together in this place of worship. The church was heavily draped both inside and outside and in front of the sanctuary were displayed a number of rich floral tributes from Greek societies.
There were present oin the church delegations from these various societies in addition to the regular congregation, and there were present a number of other friends of Mr. Anagnos.
The service was simple, consisting of singing and an address by Rev. Nestor Souslides, which was very affecting and which moved many in the congregation to tears. Tears streamed down from the eyes of the preacher before the conclusion of his address and he was so overcome by his emotions that he was obliged to step for a moment int his study before he could give the benediction.
The speaker laid so much stress on the broad humanitarianism of Mr. Anagnos, on his deep love for Greece and for the Greeks who were struggling for their independence in Macedonian, Roumania and other places, and of the deep personal interest he took in his fellow-countrymen who came to the United States, and finally there was the touching friendship which existed between the speaker and Mr. Anagnos and the work of the latter in organizing and help[ing] maintain the spirit of Greek patriotism among his fellow-countrymen here.
It all seemed very significant and a little strange, perhaps, to step into this little Puritanical church of other days, with its high-backed seats and un-adorned walls and with the few scriptural passages in old English Gothic letters n either side of the sanctuary — put there by another race, and another denomination — to see the picturesque Greek priest in flowing black beard, tall head dress and heavy gold vestments, delivering to his fellow-countrymen in their own language a eulogy of one who was great as an American citizen, but who had never forgotten his native land and whose native patriotism never waned in life.
The Greeks of Boston propose to hold memorial services each year in honor of Michael Anagnos.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]