Another Era Goes By

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Richard “Dick” Sipek, 82, died on July 17. I was stunned to learn of his death only two hours after he passed. Isn’t that how it usually is? We know that someone’s time will come, but we never think it’ll actually happen.

There’s a particular reason I was truly saddened by his passing. You see, if not for Dick, I probably wouldn’t be here, either.

Dick, whose name sign was an “S” (or a fist) on the side of the chin, was a professional baseball player for the Cincinnati Reds during World War II. Although he only played a short time, he still left his mark on the sport. He was lured into the sport as a student at the Illinois School for the Deaf (ISD) by a houseparent, Luther “Dummy” Taylor, another Deaf man who had also played professional baseball.

But that’s not the reason I owe my life, literally, to Dick.

Dick and his wife, Betty, had three Deaf children: Janice, Ron, and Nancy. They made their home in a modest rambler in Quincy, Ill. One day, when Ron was a high school student at ISD, he heard about a deaf blonde girl who lived a couple of miles away. Ron decided to pay that girl a visit. Little did my mother know that her life would be forever changed when Ron visited her that day.

They communicated using gestures and written notes, since Mom couldn’t sign. Shortly after, Mom decided to go to ISD that fall as a junior. It was there that her life finally made sense; here was a community she fell in love with. 1969 was also the year that ISD won the conference championship in football, defeating local powerhouses. Mom had a marvelous time that year, meeting people and cheering her new school on. My stepfather was part of this championship team, so I grew up listening to him and Ron tell stories about those days.

Mom graduated after only a year at ISD, but didn’t go to Gallaudet until a year later. At Gallaudet, Mom met my father. 30 years later, I write this.

So I like to say that because Dick borne Ron, and because of Ron, Mom went on to Gallaudet and met my father. In a roundabout way, that’s how I credit the Sipeks for my existence. Sure, we can argue that fate could have allowed me to exist regardless of the circumstances. But I like to think otherwise.

I grew up often visiting the Sipeks’ house, especially since Dick’s deaf granddaughter was a classmate. Even today, when I go to Quincy to visit my grandmother, I get together with Ron or his family to chat at the local pizzeria. Back then, I never really knew the significance of Dick’s accomplishments. He was just my friend’s grandfather who seemed to know everybody in town, deaf or hearing.

A few years ago, my boyfriend, Randy – a baseball fanatic who grew up admiring Dick and reading about him in Deaf Heritage – and I decided to do a book on Dick. Dick’s eyes would glow whenever he relived his baseball career, and regaled us with story after story. To his family, his stories were repetitive (understandably so), but to visitors like me, they were glorious; they were stories of another time, of a time where things were drastically different for Deaf people.

The last time Randy and I saw Dick was two years ago. It was during this visit that Dick pulled out his old baseball glove, showed us memorabilia, and lent us many articles/photographs to copy for our book. We posed for a picture, and you can see in this picture Dick’s gentle, proud spirit.

One time I asked Dick how he felt about Curtis Pride, another professional baseball player today, being a non-signer. “It hurts my feelings,” he said sadly. “What’s wrong with sign language? Why can’t he use both spoken English and ASL?” Dick, by the way, could speak very well and was fluent in both languages.

When talking about Jackie Robinson, he said in awe, “Boy, could that guy run! He was the fastest I ever saw, running around the bases!”

And Dummy Hoy? “He was really short,” Sipek remembered. “I also remember he would sway greatly as he walked, bumping against me even in the daytime. It was odd.”

Dick also never charged for giving autographs. When he learned that a store in Chicago was selling his autograph without permission, he was outraged. “Why should I charge for something like that? That’s not right! They need to stop that!”

He led a quiet, memorable life in an unassuming manner. When I go to Quincy in August, I’ll be visiting the Sipek house again. It’ll be bittersweet. But I’ll remember Dick not only for his baseball experiences and contributions to the Deaf community, but for the lives he touched, like mine.

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