During Superstorm Sandy, while New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed anxious citizens about storm damage and safety issues, all eyes were on the petite, impeccably dressed woman to his right—Lydia Callis, his official sign language interpreter.
While the mayor spoke in his trademark businesslike monotone and stiff, stilted Spanish, Callis brought his words to life, adding expression and emotion as her fingers and hands flew to translate each briefing into American Sign Language.
Watching her gave New Yorkers “a legitimate reason to smile,” New York magazine enthused. Her animated interpretations have made her so popular that the mayor began his Tuesday afternoon press conference by thanking her, and she’s inspired a Tumblr full of .gifs and a legion of online fans.
“Amid the gloom and doom of Sandy, one woman has broken through as a shining beacon of optimism: Mayor Bloomberg’s expressive interpreter,” the Daily Beast wrote in an intro to a video tribute to the rising ASL star.
A 2010 graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Callis worked on-campus at RIP as an interpreter. One of her professors, Linda Siple, described her as “highly motivated, gracious, and professional.”
“Lydia was an excellent student,” Siple said in a statement. “She was very motivated with the deaf community here.”
The RIT program is “the oldest and largest interpreting program in the country,” according to its spokesman, Greg Livandas. According to the World Federation of the Deaf, approximately 70 million deaf people across the world use sign language.
American Sign Language uses not only hand signs to form words, but relies on body language and facial expression,” he explained in a statement. It’s the fourth most-popular foreign language taught at colleges and universities in the U.S. (Spanish, French, and German are the others.)
Callis has declined interviews, and didn’t respond to an email request for comment. But some experts say that her reluctance to steal the spotlight may be one reason why she’s so good at her job.
“By nature, the role of an interpreter is to accommodate effective communication, not to be the story,” Livadas told Bloomberg Businessweek. “She may be uncomfortable with all the hype.”