by Ed Morman
From the Editor: With some regularity we spotlight books in the tenBroek Library. Here is Librarian Ed Morman's description of another book in the collection:
Blind Educator: The Story of Newel Lewis Perry by T. Hugh Buckingham. Berkeley: 1974.
Among the most heartfelt of Jacobus tenBroek's speeches was his eulogy of Newel Perry, his mentor at the California School for the Blind. Director of advanced studies at the school for more than thirty years, Perry taught and inspired tenBroek and other future leaders of the blind in California and the nation.
In his oration tenBroek explained that Perry was the first to articulate the sentiments that came to summarize the NFB’s original vision for the blind, “Security, Opportunity, and Equality.” TenBroek went on to describe the example that Perry set for his students, indeed for all blind people:
More than any other person, it was he who taught us that the blind can and must lead the blind and the sighted, too, when dealing with the problems of the blind. More than any other person, it was he who made us aware that to go on unorganized was to remain disorganized, that only through concerted action can the blind hope to convert and enlist the power of government and to defeat the thoughtless tyranny of public prejudice and opportune ignorance.
TenBroek did not meet Newel Perry until Perry was in his forties. For information to include in his speech on Perry’s childhood and young adulthood, he reported that he depended on Perry’s “near contemporaries,” and he singled out Hugh Buckingham as a particularly useful source.
Buckingham entered the California School in 1896, by which time Perry had left the blind-only institution and graduated, not only from Berkeley High School, but also from the University of California. During the next few years, when Perry was teaching at the university, he and Buckingham developed a mentor-mentee relationship and a friendship that survived until both men died in their eighties.
Shortly before Perry died, Hugh Buckingham set out to write this biography. To do so, he sat in on interviews with Perry conducted by the University of California Oral History Office; and he made a point of talking with Perry about his childhood and early life in the Sacramento Valley. Only after Perry died did Buckingham see the letters his older friend had written during his twelve years away from California. During that time Perry completed a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Munich and subsequently spent years working as a tutor in New York City, unable to secure a university professorship because of his blindness.
The result of Buckingham’s efforts is a truly beautiful book. In simple but elegant language it brings to life not only the world of the blind in late-nineteenth century Berkeley, but also the world of a motherless sighted child who lost first his sight and then his father in a rural area of California.
Buckingham clearly loved Newel Perry, but he pulls no punches in telling Perry’s life story. Perry used to insist modestly that he was no math genius and that he succeeded in making optimal use of his intellect only because he was blind and therefore did not have the distractions that vision would have provided. On the other hand, while Perry was known as a warm-hearted, if demanding, father figure to his “boys” (quotation marks around the word “boys,” because Perry included the brightest girls in the school among them), Buckingham reports that Perry was impatient and sometimes nasty and unpleasant to slower students of both sexes. Similarly, Perry—a whiskey drinker who was proud of his ability to hold his liquor—refused ever to discuss the time that he got drunk on sherry (an event that Buckingham witnessed).
Buckingham seamlessly weaves a discussion of his research methods into this delightful book. He describes the surprise he felt when he discovered—while exploring Perry’s correspondence after Perry died—that he was unhappy with Berkeley when he left at the start of his peregrinations, and that he almost begged for a position at the California School for the Blind when unable to land a university faculty position. In their earlier conversations Buckingham had never heard Perry mention his dissatisfaction and frustrations.
When Buckingham died in 1965, the book remained in manuscript form. Almost a decade later his widow arranged to have the book printed in a lovely limited edition of one hundred copies.Thankfully, the National Library Service had the book Brailled in 1980, and it is therefore available in that format (BR 04141). The tenBroek Library plans to digitize this book within the next few months and thus make it more widely available to both blind and sighted readers. Both for its subject and for its fine writing style, this book merits a wider readership.