Local Obituaries

Champion lip reader Howard Watson, who ‘voiced’ JFK at the Orange Bowl, dies at 74

In this file photo, courtesy of former Orange Bowl Committee President C. Jackson Baldwin, President John F. Kennedy flips a silver dollar before a Bowl Game at Miami’s Orange Bowl. In January 1961, for the Missouri-Navy game, the Miami Herald sent champion lip reader Howard Watson to read the president’s lips and report what he was saying in the stands.
In this file photo, courtesy of former Orange Bowl Committee President C. Jackson Baldwin, President John F. Kennedy flips a silver dollar before a Bowl Game at Miami’s Orange Bowl. In January 1961, for the Missouri-Navy game, the Miami Herald sent champion lip reader Howard Watson to read the president’s lips and report what he was saying in the stands. Courtesy C. Jackson Baldwin

“Come on hold ’em! I don’t think Navy can hold up long.”

History would never have been able to record these words from President John F. Kennedy were it not for a deaf 18-year-old Southwest High School student, class of 1961.

Howard Watson was sent by the Miami Herald to the Orange Bowl in Miami on Jan. 2, 1961, along with binoculars, to train his eyes on one famous spectator who sat in the stands across the field — JFK.

A champion lip reader in high school, the Herald enlisted Watson’s talents to transcribe the president’s comments at the Missouri-Navy showdown. Kennedy, a decorated World War II Navy lieutenant, was rooting for the Navy’s team. They lost.

Watson, of Miami Lakes, would go on to become an advocate for the deaf and hearing impaired. He graduated from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., in 1965 and earned his master’s in vocational rehabilitation counseling from the University of Maryland in 1972. He spent his professional life aiding people with disabilities and served as an executive director at Miami’s Deaf Services Bureau.

Watson died of a heart attack at Palmetto General Hospital in Hialeah on Nov. 12. He was 74.

Watson, proficient in sign language, was born April 3, 1942, in Bloomington, Indiana, and moved to South Florida as a child. At 6, he lost his hearing in a childhood accident after a blow to the right side of his head.

His wife of 39 years, Darlene, recalls how the main library in downtown Miami called on Watson to lip read a soundless videotape of Kennedy so the president’s dialog could be displayed with the visual. As an officer with the Miami Lakes Loch Isle Homeowners Association, he lobbied for residents with special needs.

Baptist Hospital called on Watson a few years ago to help a patient who lost his voice and did not know sign language, his wife said. “He had some important message to share with the family so my husband was hired to interpret what the patient was saying.”

In September 1963, Watson was a starting linebacker and reserve guard going into his junior year at Gallaudet, a liberal arts school for the deaf and hard of hearing. “Calling signals is pretty difficult,” Watson told the Herald in 1963. “Everybody on the team communicates with their hands.

“But we’ve got one thing in our favor,” he added. “We can’t get rattled by the crowd.”

Watson is also survived by his daughters Jane Johnson and Dawn Sarmiento and three grandchildren. Donations in Watson’s memory can be made to the National Association of the Deaf, 8630 Fenton St., Suite 820, Silver Spring, Maryland, 20910.

Follow @HowardCohen.

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