When Harriet MacDonald was about 18 months old, she contracted scarlet fever and lost her hearing, but that challenge never stopped her from living a life of joy. In fact, she is responsible for helping a lot of other Deaf people through her contributions.
Family members and friends recently gathered at Luther Crest, a Diakon Senior Living Community in Allentown to celebrate Mrs. MacDonald’s 100th birthday. She has lived at Luther Crest for more than 20 years.
Born Dec. 1, 1918, MacDonald was the oldest of five, with four brothers. Noticing that her daughter was struggling with school, MacDonald’s mother enrolled her in the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia. Every week, her mother drove her to the school Sunday evening and brought her home Friday night, so that the child could spend weekends with her family.
At the school, MacDonald was immersed in the Deaf community and learned sign language and how to read lips.
“At that time, sign language was frowned upon, so her family was specifically told not to learn sign language or ‘Harriet would never be normal.’ It wasn’t until the 1970s that ASL [American Sign Language] was once again considered proper to use to teach the Deaf,” says her long-time interpreter and close friend, Carole Silvoy.
Her secret to long life has been her love of travel, her love of people and her love of life ...
The school gave MacDonald many of the tools she needed not only to survive in a hearing world, but also thrive as a Deaf person. She graduated in 1939 and is currently the oldest living alumni of the school. Several fellow graduates helped her to celebrate her 100th birthday.
After graduation, MacDonald attended Moravian Seminary for Girls—now Moravian Academy—graduating from there in 1943. “There were no interpreters at Moravian, so Harriet learned her lessons by reading lips,” says Silvoy.
Harriet married Kenneth MacDonald, who also was Deaf, in 1950. The couple welcomed their son, Kenneth MacDonald Jr., a few years later. Sadly, her husband passed away suddenly in 1975 and their son nearly 20 years later.
A devoted wife and loving mother, MacDonald focused on the importance of family. At the same time, she also served through her significant contributions to the Lehigh Valley as an advocate for the Deaf. She helped remove many of the barriers Deaf people face, assisted in creating a vibrant Deaf community in the Lehigh Valley and aided many individuals who are Deaf become more independent.
In fact, she volunteered for many years at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital, working with a Deaf resident with cerebral palsy. In 2000, she was awarded the prestigious Conrad Raker Award for her volunteer work at Good Shepherd.
She also was active in the Lehigh Valley Church of the Deaf and instrumental in setting up the Deaf Senior Citizens Group, which still meets monthly at the Lehigh County Senior Center in Allentown.
Moreover, MacDonald donated a first-generation TTY (text telephone) to the Red Cross to establish the first Telecommunications Relay Service in the Lehigh Valley. TTY assists people who are Deaf or have hearing difficulties and those who wish to communicate with them by displaying messages on a screen. According to Silvoy, this step occurred before the Americans with Disabilities Act required it.
MacDonald taught sign language to fellow Luther Crest resident when she first moved to the senior living community. She had told Silvoy that she sometimes felt lonely because few others knew sign language, which makes communication challenging.
But, says Silvoy, “One time I was having dinner with Harriet at Luther Crest, and another resident came up to her and signed ‘I love you.’”
She adds: “Anyone can visit Harriet as she has whiteboards and speaks very well. She would love to chat.”
A group of Harriet MacDonald’s friends, who also are deaf, visit with her during her 100th birthday party.
She also have loved to travel, sometimes with groups of Deaf individuals, but more often with hearing groups. She has visited nearly every continent. She enjoyed knitting and crocheting and treasures a colorful afghan she keeps on her chair in her room at Luther Crest.
MacDonald credits her longevity to the fact she never obtained a driver’s license and chose to walk many places instead.
“My aunt figured out the secret to living a long life,” says her nephew, Dick Seebald, calling that secret her love of travel, her love of people and her love of life. “She brings new meaning to the word ‘blessing.’”
When a relative attending at her party asked her how she felt turning 100, she smiled and said: “I’m still living, still walking and still looking for a boyfriend!”