Tom Cooney has been visiting Largo's Osceola Middle School for 25 years now, and he couldn't be happier about it.
The 77-year-old is pretty much considered a legend at the school. Throughout the quarter of a century that he's been there, he's made quite a connection with students and staff. It's safe to say they adore him.
For the past 25 years, the former Palm Harbor resident has participated in the Great American Teach-In. He does not arrive at the school in a uniform or bring any tools of a particular trade, because he's there to explain to kids what it's like to be deaf.
Every year, he visits teacher Brenda Dannewitz's classes.
"I admire his ability to be able to talk about his life and share anything," said Dannewitz.
"The kids ask him lots of questions, and he's always so open about it. He also talks about how not everybody was nice to him all along."
Dannewitz is the school's Choral Director and prepares her students for Cooney's visit by teaching the kids a song in sign language. They also learn how to sign the alphabet, numbers and their names.
During Cooney's visit to Dannewitz's 6th, 7th and 8th grade music classes last Thursday, the students signed their names when Cooney called on them individually. Cooney led the group as they signed the alphabet and numbers.
The students listened intently as Cooney, who has been deaf since he was an infant, told stories about what it was like growing up without being able to hear. He joked about how he didn't really like homework when he was a kid. He told them about the time he met Helen Keller, and he told them how it was not fun to be teased because of his disability.
Cooney's disability has not prevented him from accomplishing a lot in his life. He's performed the National Anthem in sign language at the Super Bowl. He's met seven presidents, and owns a baseball signed by 10 former presidents. He's been the recipient of the national Thousand Points of Light award and Florida's Points of Light award for his service to the community. And along the way, he's volunteered his time to help more than one million kids learn sign language.
By the time class was over, the animated senior citizen had made a true connection with the students, without hearing a word they had to say. The kids proudly took their photos with Cooney and even gave him a fist-bump as they left class for the day.
"The kids are so awesome to me. They talk to me in sign language, we laugh and have fun," he said.
No doubt, they'll look forward to seeing him again next year.
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