Why empathy matters: The Daniel Keyes Family Endowed Scholarship
A key aspect of reading literary texts is experiencing someone else’s perspective, and researchers have consequently begun exploring the question of whether literature can foster empathy. For bestselling author Daniel Keyes, empathy was of the utmost importance, and this quality informed how and what he wrote.
In 2016, Mr. Keyes’ children decided to honor his commitment to empathy by establishing the Daniel Keyes Family Endowed Scholarship at Wayne State University. In addition to honoring their father’s legacy, Hillary and Leslie Keyes hoped to give back to Wayne State and encourage future writers and educators to spread kindness and empathy in communities everywhere.
Daniel Keyes was born in 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but always had a passion for writing. After graduating, he became an editor for a pulp fiction magazine and then began teaching English in the New York City public school system. He married Aurea Georgina Vasquez in 1952, and they had two daughters, Hillary and Leslie. After he decided to return to school, Mr. Keyes earned his master’s degree in English while writing during his free time at night and on the weekends. In 1961, he completed his master’s degree and moved to Detroit, where he taught at Wayne State University from the early to mid-1960s.
Detroit is where his daughter Leslie was born and where he worked to expand his popular novella, “Flowers for Algernon,” into a novel. A film adaptation, Charly (1968), starred Cliff Robertson, who subsequently won an Academy Award for Best Actor based on his performance. Mr. Keyes went on to write many other works that centered on characters with psychological issues, including the bestselling The Minds of Billy Milligan, which tells the story of a man with 24 distinct personalities who was acquitted of a crime after being diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. Mr. Keyes passed away at the age of 86 due to complications from pneumonia. Even after his death, the sales of Flowers for Algernon remain strong as the novel continues to make a lasting impact on contemporary culture.
In his best-known work, “Flowers for Algernon,” Mr. Keyes tells the story of Charlie Gordon, an intellectually disabled young man who undergoes a surgery to make him into a genius. The surgery takes a few weeks to have a noticeable difference, but Charlie becomes increasingly smarter every day. In just a few months, Charlie’s intelligence exceeds those of the doctors who created and performed the surgery on him. Not only does he have an unusually perceptive understanding of academic subjects, but he also begins to develop emotional intelligence as he sees the world in a way he could not before. In the process, Charlie forms a special bond with Algernon, the mouse who served as the first test subject in this experiment. Knowing how it feels to be under constant surveillance by the doctors, Charlie secretly brings Algernon to live at his home.
After watching Algernon’s cognitive abilities slowly deteriorate until his death, Charlie buries Algernon in his backyard and lays flowers on his grave in tribute to his friend. While the doctors believed that the results of the surgery would be permanent, Charlie concludes based on Algernon’s decline and death that he himself will also slowly regress to the level of intelligence he was once at. This brilliant novel does an excellent job of highlighting the moral and ethical themes of treatment of the intellectually disabled, telling the story through Charlie’s diary entries. As these entries shift in language and sophistication over the course of the narrative, Mr. Keyes uses Charlie’s growing empathy for those around him to provoke the reader’s own empathy for Charlie.
In academic year 2021-22, Nariman Hawily and Grace Powers received the Daniel Keyes Family Endowed Scholarship due to their own outstanding appreciation for the value of empathy. This scholarship requires its applicants to draft an essay on empathy, and both of their essays discuss the lasting impact and transformative potential of even the smallest acts of empathy. As Ms. Hawily said, “consistently choosing to have empathy for others bridges the gaps that may exist between one another, reminding us that we are all human.” Her essay tells the story of how a professor showed her empathy during Ms. Hawily’s sophomore year when a flat tire made her miss her first chemistry exam.
The professor’s understanding of the situation reminded her that there are professors that can empathize with their students, and this experience strengthened her desire to become one of them and to benefit her own students. Ms. Hawily is now earning her master's degree at Wayne State in order to become an English professor and to help others by spreading empathy in the world, not just in the classroom. In the late summer, she received a highly competitive position as a tutor in Wayne State’s WRT Zone, which pays her tuition for the school year and allows her to work one-on-one with students who need help with their writing. The Daniel Keyes Scholarship will go towards her school supplies for the year, helping to relieve financial pressure so that she can remain solely focused on her studies.
Ms. Powers experienced empathy in an especially striking manner when she found herself lost and alone on the streets in a French town during the middle of the night. With nowhere to go, Ms. Powers was paralyzed with fear until a French woman approached her and helped her find a warm and safe place to stay until the morning. Although the French woman could not speak English, she recognized Ms. Powers’s physical distress and showed her empathy that went beyond verbal communication. Through this small but profound interaction, the woman helped her to see how “empathy overcomes division through the divinity of connection. It has the power to transcend language, religion, nationality, race, and everything that exists between.”
Currently, Ms. Powers is an undergraduate student at Wayne State, and she is studying to be a teacher. She plans to spread empathy not only through her teaching but also by publishing a collection of short stories exploring how collective empathy, love, and community might transform the world as we know it. The Daniel Keyes Scholarship will help alleviate the financial burden of paying for tuition and school supplies so that her focus can be on her studies as well as further refining her writing skills and working toward publishing her poetry.
The Daniel Keyes Family Endowed Scholarship encourages people to see how even the smallest acts of empathy can make a lasting impact on others, and in turn, inspire people to show empathy for others. As the Memorandum of Agreement for the scholarship states, like “the ripples spreading out when a single pebble is dropped into water, this gift will perpetuate more kindness, compassion, and empathy in communities everywhere.” In keeping with that vision, Daniel Keyes dedication to empathy ripples out today in his daughters’ generous endowment of a scholarship that both recognizes his legacy and provides an impetus for outstanding Wayne State students to share their own commitment to this value with others.
– Ashley Asimakopoulos