Three people stand as a teen communicates through sign language and a woman holds a box with the words 25 Years written on it

During the Kentucky School for the Deaf’s bicentennial celebration, students prepared a time capsule they plan to open in 25 years. Photo by Joe Ragusa, April 14, 2023

Mary Leon and David Hamilton were on the Kentucky School for the Deaf (KSD) campus at the same time when they were children, coming up through the specialized education environment for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students.

“I am older than him, I will throw that out there,” said Leon, who graduated from KSD 51 years ago. Hamilton graduated 41 years ago.

The two will be the masters of ceremonies for the KSD Bicentennial Gala on April 15 for the school’s celebration its 200th anniversary. Founded on April 10, 1823, KSD was the first state-supported school of its kind in U.S. history. It also is only the fourth school specifically for Deaf children in the country’s history.

Hamilton said the campus is full of role models for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, and when he was a student, he appreciated how supportive the faculty was.

“When I look back on that, I always feel grateful to have been here,” he said. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Hamilton said he even remembered looking up to Leon, who was in high school when Hamilton was going through elementary school on campus.

“I feel honored and privileged to work alongside her,” said Hamilton.

Leon said she remembers her experience on campus fondly.

“I am very grateful that I had such wonderful – I would dare say the best – teachers,” she said. “I had access to communication; people were constantly believing in me and encouraging me and knowing I could succeed before I realized it.”

On April 14, the school hosted alumni and current students for a series of events to mark the bicentennial. The morning started with a special guest panel of KSD alumni, including an Olympian, a former CIA agent and the oldest surviving alum who went to KSD in the 1940s.

Next, the group opened a time capsule that was buried by students by a tree in front of Kerr Hall in 1998. The contents were a bit soggy, but students got the chance to pluck through some items that held up despite the water.

A wet and moldy photo shows a group of people posing in front of a building with the words April 1, 1998 at KSD written at the bottom

Many items in the time capsule from 1998 suffered water damage, but they still offered a glimpse into what life was like back then. Photo by Joe Ragusa, April 14, 2023

“Mother Nature is most the powerful thing in world,” said Brian Embrey, the student body president of the KSD Class of 1998. “But at same time, it’s a good experience for the next generation to see our mistakes and try to make it different. It’s still a joy and good to be back to our home, where I attended for a long time. And it’s always good to see old friends, teachers and staff.”

A special guest dropped by to surprise the current students: Academy Award-winning actor Troy Kotsur, who won Best Supporting Actor for his role in the 2021 film “CODA.”

“I just want to pay my respects to this school, to really bring more inspiration to future Deaf generations, to preserve the valuable sign language that is American Sign Language (ASL),” said Kotsur. “I don’t think people realize how beneficial this language is, because ASL really did save my life.”

Kotsur, who is deaf, took photos with everyone in attendance and held a question-and-answer session in the gymnasium. He talked about his background, his advocacy for Deaf education, his marriage with fellow actor and Deaf education advocate Deanne Bray, and his journey as an actor.

He told the crowd that if you’re passionate about something, dive right into it.

“Just do the best you can, whenever you can,” said Kotsur.

KSD Principal Toyah Robey said she was in awe of all the generations who came to commemorate the school’s 200th anniversary, showing current students what they can become.

“It’s so important for our students to have deaf role models and to have full access in their language, and to see those from many years ago sharing their stories,” said Robey.

And she said she was thrilled to hear the stories that were shared by alumni.

“This campus is precious to so many,” said Robey.