1961 Convention Address

Perry Sundquist, NFB First Vice President
Kansas City

On February 10, 1961, Dr. Newell Perry died in Berkeley, California at the age of 87. He was pioneer in work for the blind and a venerable leader of the blind.

I first met Dr. Perry on November 11, 1918, some forty-two years ago. I was walking across the grounds of the California School for the Blind in Berkeley, when the school bell suddenly started pealing. It was eleven in the morning. I paused as I came to a short, slightly built man with a dark beard and asked him why the bell was ringing.

“It’s the end of the war,” he said. “By the way, what’s your name?”

I told him that it was Perry.

“Is that so?” he mused, somewhat surprised. “Can you prove it?”

This challenge took me by surprise. “Why, of course I can prove it. I’ve always been called Perry,” I flustered.

The stranger gave a deep, throaty chuckle. “Is that your proof?” he asked. And then went on, “Oh, well. Don’t mind about it now. We’ll see a lot of each other over the years. Oh, by the way, my name’s Perry too, and I can’t prove it either.”

And, so it was with all who had the high privilege of knowing this unusual man. The impact of his personality was immediate and warm and lasting, whether one knew him for an hour or a day or over the years.

This man built on the strength of all of us who he knew. His striking personality seemed like a magnet, drawing you close to him and, at the same time, also drawing you closer to the best that was in you. He always met you at your own level, yet, somehow, you went forward and upward. One always found in his presence a thread of sanctuary, but one also found a renewed spirit to go on.

He was a scholar, a teacher, a social reformer, if you will, but most of all, he was a dear friend, one who could comfort and inspire at the same time. The childhoods of boys and girls, now men and women, from every walk of life, who came into contact with this man, found their own personalities enriched, subtly but surely. Even in the earliest days of one’s acquaintanceship with Dr. Perry, one recognized a most unique and unusual personality, which had a strengthening impact on one’s own. Later, in retrospect, I think we all came to understand that here was greatness in a human being, whom had been our great good fortune to know, for a longer or shorter period of time, along our own pathway of life.

Dr. Newell Perry, born December 1873, passed away February 1961. Between these two dates, were some eighty-seven years, which this man crowded with achievements in behalf of his fellow blind. Newell Perry was born in Dixon, California. He was blinded by poison oak when he was eight years old. Newell did not think of his blindness as a tragedy. At first, he did not really think of it much at all. He just went ahead doing the things that the other boys did. Later, however, as his older brothers grew up and began earning money, he began to wonder how he would do that. How he could earn money, just as his brothers did.

“You will learn to play the fiddle,” his father said. “Then I will put you on old Mel and we will go to town. You will play and people will come by the hundreds to hear you and you will make lots of money.”

For the first time, Newell began to worry. Not about himself, but about his father. He saw through the kindly intended little fantasy and perceived that his father was not at all sure that a blind person could ever earn a living. Newell’s father died in July 1883, while he was in the midst of arranging for Newell to enter the California School for the Blind.

After their father’s death, the Perry family children were taken care of by neighbors. After a few weeks, Newell decided to trek to Berkeley and enroll in the school for the blind, as his father had planned. He was ten years old at the time and his travel equipment consisted of twenty-one cents, which he had in his pocket.

The principal of the school encourage young Newell when he conceived the ambition of going to college. In 1896, Newell Perry graduated from the University of California and was made a fellow in mathematics. For the next sixteen years, he alternated between teaching and coaching. He studied and taught at both the University of California and the University of Chicago. Later, he went to Europe, where he continued his studies at the university in Zurich, Switzerland and in Munich, Germany. In July 1901, he received a degree of Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Munich. Then returned to the United States, and became a tutor at Columbia University in New York City. He remained there until 1912. That year, he married a girl he had met while he was a student at the university in Berkeley. A girl named Lily, who died in 1934. Dr. Perry joined the faculty of the California School for the Blind in 1912, and served there as Director of Advanced Studies until his retirement in 1945.

Out of his own rich, adventurous life and out of his many years of work with and association with other blind persons, Dr. Perry developed a practical philosophy. He believed that the way one learned to live without sight is through actually doing what one had previously thought impossible. After two or three experiences of this sort, one realized that very little was impossible.

“If I told a newly blind person how I look upon life,” Dr. Perry once told me, “he would not believe me. I have met many people here at home and in Europe, some who are blind and some who are not, who thought that I was not telling the truth when I told them the story of my life. It is hard for most people to understand what they themselves have not experienced.”

It has been said that the only men worth their salt on this earth are those who fight for other men’s welfare. There were very few who worked for the blind, either in California or across the nation, who were not conscious of Dr. Newell Perry’s epic work in behalf of his fellow blind everywhere, an endeavor which he carried forward so magnificently for more than half a century.

During his forty-three years at the California School for the Blind, Dr. Perry accomplished the major portion of his work. He built a program of higher education of the blind, which was the most outstanding ever achieved anywhere. In addition to his work as an educator, and he would have said, “as a necessary supplement to it,” Dr. Perry initiated comprehensive programs of social and economic legislation, and actively encouraged the organization of the blind themselves.

Dr. Perry’s pioneering work in New York and California succeeded in improving the educational advances available to blind children and adults, increased the economic opportunities for the employable blind, and extended services to assist older blind men and women to make those physical and social adjustments, which contribute so much to more adequate living. Dr. Perry’s imagination and initiative and sheer hard work were largely responsible for bringing to each of these three groups – the young, the employable, and the elderly blind of our state and nation – adequate programs of public assistance, which will unquestionably constitute one of the most significant milestones in the long history of the blind.

In initiating and securing the development of California social welfare programs for the blind, Dr. Perry not only benefited blind men and women living in his native state, but his work blazed new frontiers in the whole field of public assistance towards which most of the country is even now slowly if surely growing.

Perhaps Dr. Perry’s greatest contribution can be found in his organization and leadership of the blind themselves. In 1898, he founded the California Alumni Association of Self-Supporting Blind. And it was to further the welfare of all those without sight that the California Council for the Blind was organized in 1934. Dr. Perry was its founding president and remained in that post until 1953, when he retired from active leadership at the age of eighty.

During his long life of dedicated service and leadership, Dr. Perry inspired many others, mostly his former students, to carry on the struggle towards the goal, which he fought. His most distinguished cohort, Jacobus tenBroek, transplanted the crusade from California to the nation through the National Federation of the Blind. Dr. Perry’s philosophy, which stamped his own life and characterized his work for and with his fellow blind, can be best summed up in his own phrase: “Adventure is the essence of living.”

He achieved for himself freedom from dependency wherever it raised its ugly head. And he helped countless thousands to free themselves from what he considered to be the real tragedy of blindness – denial of adventure. Dr. Perry, that venerable and beloved leader of the blind, has left us. But he has also left us a rich heritage. This man’s greatness must ultimately be found in that genius which he possessed to inspire other blind men and women to make his dreams their dreams, his work their work, his devotion their devotion.

In a very real sense, Dr. Newell Perry has created his own living memorial in the lives of those thousands of blind boys and girls, now men and women, whom he guided to independent living and whom he inspired to carry on that cause to which he gave so much, helping others to overcome the physical, social, and economic consequences of blindness.