Blind 1969 UW-Eau Claire graduate is now retired

Helen Cutler never guessed she would end up teaching language to missionaries in the mouth of the Amazon.



Cutler (center) graduating cum laude from UWEC on May 22, 1969.

Helen Cutler, a UW-Eau Claire graduate and Spanish major from the class of 1969, always knew she wanted to teach — but she had no idea her passion would take her all the way to Brazil.

Not only that, but she said there was a time when she was unsure if she would have a future teaching at all; not for academic reasons — she graduated cum laude — but because she is blind.

Cutler said that despite strong support from the Spanish department, she and other visually impaired students faced opposition from the university when she pursued a career in education.

“The dean at the time…he just had it in his mind that a person who couldn’t see just was not going to teach,” Cutler said.

“My first impression of Helen was that she was running scared,” said Mary Daniels, Cutler’s future professor in graduate school who would eventually accompany her to Brazil.  “Roma (Hoff)  had been a mighty combatant on her behalf, but the College of Education was not immunable to handicapped students. It was a cruel system and Helen was a later victim of it.”

Nevertheless, Cutler was not discouraged.

“She is unstoppable,” Judy Paz, Cutler’s former roommate at UW-Eau Claire, said of her longtime friend. “She always had an attitude of, ‘yeah, I can do that.’”

After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish from UW-Eau Claire, she continued to the University of Iowa to pursue her Master’s, where she encountered what she called “one of those funny little quirks” that changes your life — she met Professor Mary Daniels through Roma Hoff, an acclaimed Spanish professor at UW-Eau Claire.

Daniels calls Hoff the “lynchpin” in Cutler’s story; as her primary support in the Spanish department in Eau Claire, Cutler said Hoff was very invested in her future.

“My mom talked of Helen with great affection and great admiration,” said Paul Hoff, Roma Hoff’s son and a current Spanish professor at UW-Eau Claire.

Cutler said that Professor Daniels was just beginning to start a Portuguese program at Iowa, and because she was already studying Spanish, Cutler was invited to participate.

Cutler said she loved languages and just wanted to learn, and decided Portuguese would be a good second language to have under her belt.

“I’d practically have all of South America covered,” Cutler said, laughing.

Cutler said she took her newfound Portuguese studies seriously, working hard throughout Daniels’ course and continuing to study the language through the summer.

Her dedication paid off — Daniels later asked Cutler to work as her teaching assistant, and Cutler excitedly accepted the experience.

While working together during her last three years in Iowa, Cutler said that she and Daniels  grew to become good friends. It is for this reason that, after her last semester student-teaching, Daniels invited Cutler to Belém — a bustling city in northern Brazil which Lonely Planet describes as “the eastern gateway to the Amazon.”

In Belém, Cutler was immersed in more Portuguese than she ever expected she would be, especially after studying Spanish for seven years, but her passion for language allowed her to treat the experience as a learning opportunity.

Cutler took this exposure in stride as she and Daniel worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Belém. Wycliffe translated scriptures into indigenous languages, such as languages spoken in the Amazon, that likely did not even have an alphabet to allow for written word.

Cutler and Daniel were essentially the middle men  — they taught Portuguese to American missionaries who worked as indigenous translators for Wycliffe.

Cutler turned out to be such a qualified teacher that Wycliffe asked her to stay in Belém and teach permanently, which of course, she accepted.

“Helen was just available,” said Daniels, who returned to continue teaching in the United States. “She just fell right into that position. It was handmade for her and she for it.”

This began her next 33 years in Brazil, where she continued to teach Portuguese to adult missionaries and their children.

Cutler said she is happy to have called Brazil her home for so much of her life — although she said the heat, humidity and jungles took getting used to, she loved the fruits, the hustle and bustle of the markets, the people, and most of all, teaching.

“Teaching was just fun,” Cutler said. “To watch people develop a skill and come to the point where they could use a new language…it was just fun to watch it happen.”

The last decade she spent in Belém, Cutler spent primarily translating materials from English to Portuguese, which she described as “a nice challenge,” especially considering she used electric typewriters to type from dictation, rather than a computer.

Finally, after 33 years in Belém, Cutler felt it was time to return to the United States.

“I wasn’t old enough that I wanted to retire,” Cutler explained, “but I knew that I should come back to the States and get settled somewhere, put down some roots.”

She decided on Dallas, TX, where she was able to continue translating for Wycliffe Bible Translators until she decided to retire four years ago.

Cutler said she remains happy in Dallas, and even continues to translate scripture for Wycliffe part-time. Though her passion remains in teaching, she said she finds translating fulfilling as well.

Cutler, Paz and Daniel all continue to keep in touch. Paz said she hopes Cutler’s story will be one to “continue to inspire not only students, but parents who may remember her.”

Lopez can be reached at [email protected].