Pearl B. Olanoff, 91, longtime teacher of deaf children

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Pearl Bliss Olanoff, 91, of Philadelphia, a longtime teacher of deaf children, died Thursday, June 29, of congestive heart failure at Atria Senior Living in Center City.

Pearl Bliss Olanoff

Ms. Olanoff dedicated herself to instructing children with hearing impairment, first at the Friends of the Deaf Nursery School at North Philadelphia, later at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, and finally within the School District of Philadelphia.

She also taught evening classes in sign language and lip reading to adults at the Cheltenham School District, said her daughter, Beth Olanoff.

After retiring in the 1980s, Ms. Olanoff continued teaching as a volunteer. She was a reading tutor to first graders at the Greenfield Elementary School and worked informally with graduate students at Temple and Drexel Universities from China and Taiwan who needed help with English skills to seek employment.

A reliable and much-loved mentor and friend, Ms. Olanoff stayed in contact with many of her students for years.

The Olanoff family had a long history of aiding the hearing-impaired. The impetus came from Rose Olanoff, Ms. Olanoff’s mother-in-law, a longtime interpreter for the deaf in the Philadelphia court system.

“My mother crossed over into my father’s mother’s world,” daughter Beth Olanoff said.

It was Rose who organized the Friends of the Deaf in April 1936. The group wanted to establish a house where the Jewish deaf and their friends could hold meetings and religious services. In 1939, the group acquired and dedicated a building at 1516 W. Girard Ave. as the Friends of the Deaf Community Center.

The center sponsored a nursery school and a space for dances, interpreters, counseling sessions, and instruction in skills such as sign language, lip reading, speech development, and sense training. The school closed in 1975 due to lack of funding, and the building was sold in 1979.

When not in the classroom, Ms. Olanoff was a patron of the arts. Her home was filled with works by Philadelphia artists, such as painter and printmaker Itzhak Sankowsky, painter George Beach, and watercolorist Howard Watson. She often entertained artists in her home.

She expressed her own creativity as an accomplished seamstress. She also loved to knit, do needlepoint, throw pots, and weave.

Born in Philadelphia, Ms. Olanoff was the second daughter of Louis and Ida Bliss. The family lived on Franklin Street in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. Ms. Olanoff’s parents were immigrants who had arrived from Russia around 1900. Louis Bliss maintained a dental office in the front of the house on Franklin Street. The family lived in the rest of the home, and any spare rooms were rented out to friends and relatives.

Ms. Olanoff graduated in 1944 from Philadelphia High School for Girls. She remained an active alumna and, after marrying Richard L. Olanoff and having four daughters, she shepherded all four through Girls High. She told family she was proud to serve as a board member of the Girls High Alumnae Association.

Ms. Olanoff earned her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts at the University of Pennsylvania. Although she looked back fondly on her years at Penn, she told family members that several buildings on campus were off-limits to women, which she viewed as gender bias.

“She didn’t talk much about Penn, but when she did, that came up,” her daughter said.

She earned a master’s degree in early childhood education from Temple University by taking classes one at a time at night, while working full time with children still at home.

“It took a long time — maybe 10 years – but she never made a fuss about it,” her daughter said. “She just did it. I never heard her complain.”

Ms. Olanoff was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two decades ago, and in later years it affected her speech and mobility. Early in her battle with the disease, she began participating in research activities through the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at Pennsylvania Hospital. Her last gift to science was a donation of brain tissue to further the group’s research.

This past spring, although not in good health, she insisted on voting in the primary election.

The Olanoffs lived in Elkins Park and East Mount Airy. The couple divorced in the late 1970s. Richard Olanoff died in 1991.

In addition to her daughter, Ms. Olanoff is survived by daughters Rachel Kreimer, Dinah Olanoff, and Hannah Olanoff; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

A memorial service was held Sunday, July 2. Shiva will be observed at the home of Rachel Kreimer at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, July 3 and 4.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Alumnae Association of the Philadelphia High School for Girls, P.O. Box 845, Mount Laurel, N.J. 08054, or via

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