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Born deaf and mute, Lee recalls school nearly 80 years ago

Dean was also involved in athletics at the South Dakota School for the Deaf including basketball. Lee said he knew the whistle was blown because he could feel the vibration. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 5
Dean Lee, a native of Forestburg, was born deaf and spent his early years going to school at the South Dakota School for the Deaf in Sioux Falls. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 5
Dean Lee, a native of Forestburg, was born deaf and spent his early years going to school at the South Dakota School for the Deaf in Sioux Falls. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 5
Although he went to school at the South Dakota School for the Deaf in Sioux Falls, in 2009 Lee was presented with an honorary diploma from Forestburg High School. (Matt Gade / Republic)4 / 5
Dean Lee has some close friends he's able to communicate with using sign language but otherwise uses his notepad to communicate with most people. (Matt Gade / Republic)5 / 5

"You belong here" doesn't have to be said. It can be felt.

For Countryside Living resident Dean Lee, who was born unable to hear or speak, there is no question that he belongs.

Lee, 85, was born in a time when children with disabilities were sent away from home to deal with them. But his family and community in Forestburg embraced him, and he became an integral part of his community.

"I never met anyone who didn't like Dean," said LaMoine Torgerson, who grew up several years younger than Lee but befriended him as a young child.

Lee was sent to the South Dakota School for the Deaf at age 6 in 1939. Later this year, it will mark 80 years since he was sent off to the educational facility. During a recent interview with The Daily Republic, and with the help of Torgerson, Lee shared the memory of his first two-hour Greyhound bus journey from Forestburg to Sioux Falls, stopping at every small community along the way.

"He was scared, alone and cold, and the trip was slow," Torgerson said, summarizing Lee's animated communication of his memories as a 6-year-old making the journey alone.

After the bus arrived in Sioux Falls, Lee's aunt, who lived there, picked him up and transported him to his new dormitory, where he stayed until Thanksgiving.

"They said they had to wean him" off of his family, said Darrell Olson, whose sister married Torgerson and who became a close personal friend of Lee's.

Lee, who moved from the farm to Countryside Living at the coaxing of his friends in 2013, still conveys to his friends how much he missed his mother in those early years of his education.

"When you think about kids today when the mother or dad takes them to kindergarten the first time, how traumatic it is, imagine back then, in the '40s, putting him on the bus 90 miles away," Torgerson said.

After Thanksgiving, Lee came home to Forestburg more frequently, and area children did their best to include him in their shenanigans on weekends and during the summer. Lee brought sign language alphabet cards to his friends, who eagerly learned it.

"He couldn't hear us talking, so we thought it was kind of neat to learn" how to communicate with him, Torgerson said.

And it didn't take long for the boys of Forestburg to try using their friend's disability to their advantage.

"We decided we would learn that, so if we had a test or something and we didn't know an answer, between us buddies, we could sign the answer. But his aunt was a school teacher, and that lasted about one time," Torgerson said with a laugh. "It didn't help us any."

These days, Lee and his close friends communicate almost seamlessly, employing a combination of signing, miming and lip-reading.

"People on TV will (sign) words or sentences, but we can't do that," Torgerson said. "We might shorten things up a little by mouthing some things, but mainly we do the alphabet," and Lee fills in the blanks by reading others' lips.

When stories get too complicated, the friends resort to a notebook, but it's been needed less and less over the years. A couple of words is all it takes for the conversation to get back on track, Olson said.

Outside his inner circle of friends, Lee said he goes through an average of three small, spiral-bound notebooks a week communicating with the staff and residents at Countryside Living.

Extra senses

Lee's friends described their favorite hunting buddy as "a tremendous shot," and said they never needed a bird dog with him around.

"We're out blocking, and he'll shoot one way out there. We'll hop in the pickup, and he drives ... clear across the field, and that bird is laying there, dead," Torgerson recalled. "I'll just be shocked."

Lee always told his friends he could "smell" the location of the dead bird — proof, Torgerson said, that "your senses of smell and sight are better when you don't have your sense of hearing."

As he watched his friends share old hunting stories, Lee became excited, gesturing with his friends that he wanted to share a story, too. The men laughed as they admitted what he was saying.

"He always accused me of shooting hens," Torgerson laughed as Lee motioned as if he were cutting his neck. "I'd always tease that I was doing it for his mother."

Lee, laughing, wrote a note: "LaMoine poor shot," it said. "Darrell good block shot."

Like with spotting birds, Lee seems to have an extra sense for reading people.

"He reads a room real quick, and he's quick to point out" characteristics and mannerisms that his friends may not notice, Torgerson said.

One time, Lee ran some men out of the Artesian bar when they were pretending to be deaf and begging for money to help overcome their supposed disabilities.

"He is even more critical than us of people who were abusing the system," Torgerson said. "He is pretty observant and reads people pretty well."

That skill plays out in his favor at the card table.

"Sometimes people would accuse us of using sign language to cheat at cards, but he would never do that," Torgerson said, adding that he didn't need to.

"In pinochle, it's important to remember what's been played and what's still out there," Olson agreed.

Since he isn't distracted by conversation, he's able to focus intently on the cards as they're played, and he tends to win more hands than he loses, even as he's aged.

Torgerson recently talked with a Mitchell businessman who regularly play cards with his friend.

"I told him I'm not worried about Dean losing $25 or $50, but I don't want him embarrassed," Torgerson shared. "He told me, 'You don't worry about that.' ... He will hold his own."

The love for Dean

When he got into high school, Lee was quite an athlete, competing with the S.D. School for the Deaf's basketball, football and track teams. On Thursday, he proudly scribbled down his track records with a smile, boasting 10.1 seconds in the 100-meter dash and a 19.17-foot long-jump.

Though they never saw him compete, Torgerson and Olson marveled at the school's competition with hearing teams throughout the area.

"I'd ask him how they knew it was a foul or something, and he'd say, 'When they blew the whistle, you could hear the vibration,'" Torgerson said.

Though he didn't enjoy dancing, Lee loved school dances.

"He could hear the vibration of the dance floor from the music," Torgerson said.

Later in life, Lee was the town baseball team's umpire, and he received an honorary degree from Forestburg High School in 2009, thanks to his financial contributions to the Sanborn Central School District.

Though he didn't particularly want to leave the farm, nor the community that supported him, to move to Countryside Living when his health deteriorated in 2013, he agreed to spend the winter there, and it has become his new home.

"Once he got here, he got to know these people and, come spring, he was pretty well acclimated here," Olson said. "They just adopted him, and they loved him."

Initially, Lee — a diabetic — was known to get coffee and desserts for the ladies, but he recently has needed a walker and instead entertains with his many hats and holiday decorations.

The friends said they are thankful that Lee's family has been extended by the move.

"They take good care of him here," Olson said. "They prick his finger twice a day and keep his meds right. This has been a good spot for Dean."