by Barbara Sherf
By using his hands to communicate, longtime Chestnut Hill resident and Germantown native Tim Alexander (literally) took to heart a biblical saying his mother taught him as a young boy: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Alexander, 77, who worked in special education for 35 years and at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf when it was in Mt. Airy for a dozen of those years, can be seen on any given Tuesday at 3 p.m. at the Chestnut Hill Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia using his hands to teach sign language.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, he was busy teaching Our Mother of Consolation (OMC) second grader Carina Fiorella, of Chestnut Hill how to sign. “She knows her alphabet and animals, and she really has taken to it. She’s quick learner,” he said of the 7-year-old.
“Sign language is the third most used international language. If you know English, Spanish and sign language, you can get around in just about any country,” Alexander shared after the session.
After about a half-hour of signing and laughing with her teacher, Carina had had enough. “That’s pretty good for her age. When they get fidgety, I like to keep them an extra minute and then let them go. That’s it. We’re done. I would lose her as a learner if I kept her sitting here for a full hour,” he noted of the volunteer activity. “I just got paid. She ‘got it,’ and that’s my paycheck.”
Alexander remembered his 12 years working at the Pennsylvania School for the Blind in Mt. Airy. “The school was at Greene and Coulter streets, and we were down to 35 kids. It was a pretty big school, so it just didn’t make financial sense to keep it going in that big old building,” he said. He then went to Pathways School in Jeffersonville, working there for 25 years.
One of six children who grew up as an Irish-Catholic family in Germantown, Alexander has an identical twin brother, Tom, who does not sign. “I’d come back to school after summer break, and a student would sign, ‘Why didn’t you say hello to me in the store?,’ and I would have to sign back that it wasn’t me; it was my brother he or she must have had bumped into. At first the students didn’t believe me, so I had to bring my brother to school to show them,” he chuckled.
In his first year signing, he taught nine girls in the classroom how to sign.
“They were beautiful girls, but they’d make mistakes. We all learned together, and at the end of the year they were chatting away fast and furiously. There was almost too much ‘talk’ among them, and I’d have to tell them to keep the conversations down,” said Alexander, while wearing jeans, a handmade sweatshirt with the words #1 Grandpop, and a U.S. Marine Corps baseball cap.
Chestnut Hill Head Librarian Margaret Brunson knew Alexander through the collections he’d loan the library that include 25 years of political buttons including an 1898 button for President William McKinley, his complete set of Phillies baseball cards from 1952 to 2014 and his Reader’s Digest collection that dates back a century. His toy train set collection has not made it from his basement to the library yet. “I knew he signed,” said Brunson, “and I thought there would be interest, and there has been. He’s a real treasure.”
Married for just over 50 years to Mary Lou Malfatto, Alexander served a decade in the Marines and saw active duty in 1958 in Beirut. While he won many medals, the humble sign language teacher did not want to get into specifics as they “were nothing to brag about.”
With a glint in his eye, Alexander recalled how he met his wife at the top of the Hill gas station, when it was Atlantic Gasoline. “She and her girlfriend were always running out of gas, and I’d wind up pushing them into the gas station. Maybe she picked me up. I guess I climbed the social ladder when we got married,” said the 1956 graduate of North Catholic High School.
Alexander then worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as an accounting clerk for 10 years, and once he was eligible to receive a pension he quickly made an exit.
“I could see people who had been there 30 years or more, and I wanted to do something more with my life,” so he went to night school on the GI Bill for six years and became a teacher. He taught for one year at Marple Newtown High School but realized he needed more of a challenge, so he went back to school to become a special education teacher.
He still sees former students and wants to be able to connect with them through sign language, and studies up while manning one of Chestnut Hill’s parking lots.
Five mornings a week, he totes his sign language study guide to the Highland Avenue parking lot near the Chestnut Hill Business Association, where he stands on the street or in the little booth by the kiosk.
“There’s a lot of down time, so I work on signing. It keeps your mind sharp. When a customer comes up and needs assistance at the kiosk, I show them how to do it, but then I make them do it so they will know the next time,” said the longtime OMC parishioner. With two grown daughters, Alexander spends his spare time in Schwenksville, watching his three grandsons play baseball. In addition to teaching in schools, Alexander has taught sign language in private homes to the parents of autistic children.
“I teach both the parents and children survival words, like water, bathroom, hungry, sleepy,” so they can communicate until they learn their words.
He has also signed at weddings. “I now sit in the front seat with any deaf guests and sign, so I’m not front and center and taking away from the ceremony.”
As for his years as a teacher, he turned nostalgic. “I loved every minute of it. I never flunked anybody. If you tried, you got a grade. Hearing-impaired individuals are very intelligent, and they make do with what they have and remain positive. That’s always impressed me. I have no regrets.”