Army veteran Peter L. Svanda dies; befriended Helen Keller as a teen

Peter L. Svanda


By BONNIE L. COOK | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: September 27, 2019

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Peter L. Svanda, 85, of Philadelphia, a retired Rohm & Haas executive who as a teenager struck up a friendship with Helen Keller, died Sunday, Sept. 15, of respiratory failure at Waverly Heights in Gladwyne.

Mr. Svanda was born in Easton, Conn., and raised by his grandparents, who had left Czechoslovakia in 1906. They arrived at Ellis Island and were sent to Westport, Conn., to dig reservoirs for water destined for New York City, he said in a 2009 lecture to the Stone Harbor Lions Club that was covered by the Cape May County Herald.

Mr. Svanda’s grandmother, who did Keller’s laundry, introduced the boy to her. At age 12, he began to mow her lawn, wash windows, and garden. In 1946, Keller and her caregiver, Polly Thompson, lived on a five-acre Westport estate.

Keller hosted large dinner parties at the 12-room house. “Polly Thompson would talk to Miss Keller by spelling everything into her hand,” he told the Lions. “They were very good at this and could keep up with any conversation. Miss Thompson would then tell everyone what Miss Keller had said.”

At age 16, when he was old enough to drive, Mr. Svanda became Keller’s part-time chauffeur, taking her shopping and to business meetings. On Saturday afternoons several times a month, he drove Keller and Thompson to the movies.

“Miss Thompson would, using sign language in Miss Keller’s hand, explain everything that was going on,” he told the Lions. "They would both laugh and cry, depending on what the film was about. Remember, Miss Keller could not hear or see, and yet she could enjoy a film.”

Keller, whose story was featured in the 1962 movie The Miracle Worker, got along well with Mr. Svanda because they were both curious. “She wanted to learn about him. He wanted to understand her life,” his family said.

Once he graduated from high school, he took a job at the Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. He enlisted in the Army and was honorably discharged as a sergeant in the summer of 1955. That fall, he enrolled at Miami University of Ohio, and four years later earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

While in college, Mr. Svanda met Jeralyn Thurman. “In 1957, when Jeralyn and I got married, Miss Keller sold me her 1947 black Pontiac, which we loved and kept for many years,” he reminisced. “I really feel blessed to have had the opportunity to know her, work for her, and be her friend.”

Jeralyn Svanda said her husband built a handrail along a pathway so Keller could walk in her garden. “Miss Keller was able to tell the color of the flower by the fragrance,” she said he recalled.

Mr. Svanda joined the Rohm & Haas Co. right out of college. He worked there for 32 years.

Early in his career, Mr. Svanda moved to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dayton, Ohio, and Cleveland. In 1969, he was finally transferred to the Rohm & Haas offices in Center City. The Svandas settled in Devon and raised three children.

In 1974, Mr. Svanda was promoted to corporate advertising director. In the early 1980s, he became worldwide advertising director of the big chemical firm. He retired in 1991.

In retirement, he and his wife opened a small hardware store at Third and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia called Olde City Hardware. They sold it in 2010.

In 1980, the couple moved from Devon to Queen Village, so they could enjoy the city’s culture. They remained there until moving to Waverly Heights in 2012. They spent summers at their house in Stone Harbor.

Mr. Svanda was active in many organizations. He served on the board of directors of Daemion House, Wilma Theater, and the Institute of Contemporary Art. He was also president of the Philadelphia Opera Guild.

In addition to his wife of 62 years, he is survived by children Gregory, Wendi Chase, and Allison O’Keefe and six grandchildren.

Memorial services will be at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, 226 Righters Mill Rd., Gladwyne. Burial is private.

Donations may be made to Opera Philadelphia, Academy House, 1420 Locust St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19102 www.operaphila.org/support, or the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19107 www.wilmatheater.org/giving.

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