Jackie Coker, deaf and blind, helped other disabled people
By Mary Lynne Vellinga -- Bee Staff Writer
Following in the footsteps of Helen Keller, Jackie Coker graduated from
college and became a professional educator despite being both blind and deaf
most of her life. In 1949, she became the first deaf-blind graduate of the
California School for the Blind in Berkeley.
Ten years later, she graduated from the College of the Pacific in Stockton
She spent 25 years working for the state education and rehabilitation
departments, teaching life skills to disabled people and lecturing to
college students about her life, said her cousin, Dorothy "June" Hawkins.
Ms. Coker died Feb. 19 of cancer at her home in Sacramento. She was 77.
She lost her sight and hearing at age 7 when she contracted meningitis. At
the time, Ms. Coker and her extended family were living in the small town of
Coolidge, Ariz., where they had moved from the oil fields of Texas in search
of work during the Great Depression.
"We played together. We licked off the same suckers," recalled Hawkins, now
80. "It's a wonder we didn't have spinal meningitis, too. There were other
children in our town that had it. She was the only one who lived."
Before the illness struck, Ms. Coker was a tomboy who ran around in jeans,
T-shirts and a cowboy hat, using a homemade wooden gun to shoot stretched
pieces of inner tube.
Afterward, she was left in a suddenly silent and dark world.
At first, Hawkins said, the family didn't know how to go about educating Ms.
"We had no resources; we were just barely making a living," she said. "It
was two years that she just stayed at home. We tried to be in touch with her
by spelling in her hand, and by her reading lips with her fingers."
The state of Arizona eventually hired a teacher for the youngster, and then
sent her to a school for the blind in Tucson.
In 1946, her parents moved their family to Napa so she could attend the
blind school in Berkeley. Ms. Coker moved to Sacramento after graduating
from the College of the Pacific in 1959.
Hawkins said Ms. Coker's college education was at least partly financed by a
$1,000 annual Helen Keller Scholarship for the Deaf-Blind from the American
Foundation for the Blind in New York. Ms. Coker also met Keller, who died in
After graduating, Ms. Coker took a job with the state Department of
Education and later moved to the Department of Rehabilitation before
retiring in 1986. While she always lived with a companion to help her, she
could do many things for herself.
Ms. Coker traveled to London with another deaf-blind woman, accompanied by
two interpreters, and attended conventions in New Orleans and New York City
at which she lectured about her experiences, Hawkins said.
"She spoke better than anyone I knew of who was deaf," she said.
In order to understand what other people were saying, Ms. Coker had them use
their fingers to spell in her hand, the same method famously used by Helen
Keller's teacher. But with Hawkins and other intimate friends and family,
she placed her fingers on their mouths and read their lips.
"A lot of other people didn't want her hands on their face, strangers,
usually," Hawkins said. "She always told me that she needed to read my lips
to stay practiced."
Born: Jan. 22, 1928
Died: Feb. 19, 2005
Remembered for: Being a deaf-blind educator.
Survived by: Cousins Dorothy "June" Hawkins of Rocklin and Michael
Stockstill of Sacramento.
Funeral services: At Ms. Coker's request, no services are scheduled.
About the writer:
The Bee's Mary Lynne Vellinga can be reached at (916) 321-1094 or
The Invisible Helmet: A First-Person Account of Deaf-Blindness
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