by Anna Kresmer
From the Editor: Anna Kresmer is a member of the staff of the tenBroek Library. In the following article she provides glimpses of Jacobus tenBroek as revealed in the letters he and his wife Hazel exchanged with his much-loved sister Lillian.
Jacobus tenBroek was the second of six children. In a big family like his there were many comings and goings: children born, weddings attended, and a host of family gatherings—with the occasional bit of drama thrown in. Many of these interactions are preserved in the family correspondence found in Dr. tenBroek’s personal papers. Of all his siblings, tenBroek was closest to his younger sister, Lillian tenBroek Preston. Born in 1915, she was never afraid to speak her mind, which sometimes got her into trouble with other members of the family. Like tenBroek she possessed a sharp mind, a desire to stand up for the rights of others, and the willingness to be a public face for a cause she believed in. Over the years, affectionately calling each other Chick and Lill, they wrote numerous letters back and forth, offering support in times of trouble, congratulations in times of success, and at all times sharing a wonderfully witty sense of humor at the foibles of life.
The letters featured in this article are from the correspondence of Dr. tenBroek, part of the Jacobus tenBroek Personal Papers, an archival collection held by the Jacobus tenBroek Library. All quotations are transcribed exactly as they were written by their authors and have not been edited for content or grammar. Spanning the years 1942 to 1968, they open a window into the daily lives of both families, including their struggles and their victories, and they offer a unique perspective on the development of the organized blind movement.
A prime example of the close relationship shared by Dr. tenBroek and Lillian is a letter she sent to him on March 4, 1942. Upon hearing the news that tenBroek had been offered yet another one-year extension of his fellowship at the University of Chicago Law School, rather than the full-time teaching position he had hoped to secure, her response was pragmatic. Offering an optimistic take on the situation, she consoles her brother by saying, “Congratulations on the job--at least the next year is taken care of. If you can always be sure of things for one year ahead I would say that is doing pretty well.” Little did they know that good news was just around the corner. It was only a few months later that Dr. tenBroek was offered and accepted his full-time position as an instructor in the Public Speaking Department at the University of California, Berkeley.
The depth of their affection is apparent in many of the letters they exchanged. When she married a young doctor named Thomas Preston in 1946, she was given away by tenBroek himself. In a postcard sent to him on August 5, 1946, during her honeymoon, the new Mrs. Preston had this to say: “You are very fine bride giver ‘awayers.’ At last you gave a bride to the right man. The trip is wonderful so far.” After the honeymoon the Prestons moved to El Paso, Texas, where she worked as a school nurse. Later they moved to the newly incorporated town of Anthony, New Mexico, where they set up an obstetrics clinic. Living over a thousand miles apart did not lessen the bond between siblings, and, if anything, the frequency of their correspondence increased.
As close as Dr. tenBroek and Lill Preston were throughout their adult lives, the bond between her and tenBroek’s wife Hazel was just as close. Her letters to her sister-in-law provide an insider’s view of what could have been called one of the busiest households in the entire country. Aside from a heavy teaching schedule, the pursuit of various research projects, raising their young son Dutch, and carrying out the work of a fledgling Federation, the tenBroeks also led a busy social life. In a letter dated December 16, 1946, after describing how their little family had recently traveled to San Francisco to visit family friends, spent Thanksgiving with another set of friends, and hosted their own turkey sandwich party the Sunday following Thanksgiving, Mrs. tenBroek wrote the following:
This going out business is beginning to interfere with the work and despite Chick's protests that we simply mustn't neglect the work, he hasn't turned down a single invitation yet and we are pretty well dated up for both Saturday and Sunday from now until the first of the year and have been going at this pace for over a month now. But it is good for us say I.
Dutch is developing at a very normal rate and we are enjoying him more every minute. We have an early dinner now so that he and Chick have an hour's playtime together before Dutch turns in for the night. We bought him a beautiful all steel wagon with ball-bearing wheels and a fancy geared handle, bright red, of course, for Christmas. Chick insists on assembling it himself.
Dr. tenBroek was both a devoted father and a devoted teacher. In his work at Berkeley, Dr. tenBroek often went above and beyond the call of duty for his students. One of the most popular professors in the university, he was highly sought after for recommendation letters, served on several prominent committees, and regularly pondered how he could find a way to cut down his overflowing class sizes. It was not uncommon for the duties of a college professor to extend beyond the boundaries of the university campus and right into the tenBroek home. Yet he and his wife seemed to take this in stride. Writing to Mrs. Preston on April 21, 1947, Mrs. tenBroek provides a glimpse of how her living room often masqueraded as a classroom and how the family dining room occasionally transformed into a dining hall:
We have the class in Judicial Rhetoric in Contemporary American Government again this spring. It is quite large—some fifteen or so—and meets here on Monday evenings. We have to move the table into the living room, the heavy furniture all along the south wall and put up four folding chairs to accommodate them. There are always a few guests. All of this makes the refreshment problem a real one for they don’t like the idea of paper plates or cups and haven’t yet caught on that the others might be more available if they offered to do the dishes.
Mrs. tenBroek was never fazed by the demands of her husband’s work, whether they extended into her own home or to other parts of the country. Her devotion to Dr. tenBroek as a wife and a partner (as well as her wry sense of humor) are shown when speaking about the possibility of Dr. tenBroek’s accepting a visiting professorship for a year in Boulder, Colorado—a prospect that would temporarily require relocating the family. In a letter sent to Preston in 1948, she states that the troubles “of finding suitable housing in Boulder seem to bother Chick a good deal but don’t affect me that way. If he wants to go, the rest of it will work out with a good deal more ease than he thinks. He worrys about these details enough to drive me to distraction—that is the tenBroek in him no doubt.”
Dr. tenBroek’s many projects and numerous responsibilities certainly kept him and his wife on their toes. Somehow, in the midst of all the work, they managed to raise three happy children in a loving environment. In their letters to Preston it is obvious they took great pride in their children Dutch, Anna, and Nick. But nothing could throw a monkey wrench into their well-oiled machine like the scheming of an inquisitive child. Displaying her marvelous sense of humor once again, Mrs. tenBroek recounts the antics of her eldest son in 1948. In the midst of a major home improvement project involving the construction of a cement patio in their backyard, three-year-old Dutch gets other ideas:
Dutch is really having fun out of all of this. Playing in the cement, water and inside the house while we were outside, has been his idea of heaven. Sunday morning while we were busy outside he took a quart of milk, dry cereal and the sugar bowl into his room and mixed his own `cement’ on the rug. Yesterday the girl took him down to the park for a change. As they approached the little fish pond Dutch decided he would like to be a fish—so he broke away from her and dove in—head first. I guess we don’t have to worry about his inhibitions.
Not to be outdone, Dutch’s cousin Virginia also gave her parents a run for their money. In a letter sent on April 14, 1949, it is clear that Mrs. Preston (like all good parents) must have had the patience of a saint. Once again displaying the dry brand of humor that runs through their correspondence, she writes to Mrs. tenBroek:
Virginia continues to pester us to walk. She still insists on holding one finger and strolling during most of her time out of the crib. Thank heaven Maria [the maid] doesn’t mind walking with her. She has seven teeth and can say “Ah-ha” very distinctly. She can also open a can of black shoe paste and black herself from top to bottom as well as the floors, walls and furniture. Otherwise everything is calm around here.
Aside from raising her own three girls (Virginia, Jane, and Margaret), Mrs. Preston led a busy life in her small New Mexico town. Much of her time was spent assisting her husband in the clinic exam room, running their personal and business finances, and managing a small property that they donated to the town for use as a preschool. But like her brother, Lillian had a taste for public service, and in 1952 she ran for an alderman position on the town’s municipal council. Her proud letter to the tenBroeks on August 29 of that year said the following:
The election came with a great deal of local interest. We had a fine turn out of voters. There were eleven candidates for the five alderman and I came out with the second highest number of votes. If the election had been a week later I might have lost because one of the candidates who was unpopular was trying to get in on my coatail. Unfortunately I didn’t find out about the undercover activity until the day before the election and the guy was loosing votes for me faster than I could get them. A little political experience would have been useful. Next time I’ll announce ahead of time that I am on my own or on a team—but I hope to know whose team.
Preston served in this office from 1952 to 1957 and was the only woman on the council. During her political career she worked to help establish the city’s public services, including a water works, a sewer system, and a city dump. Anthony, New Mexico, was incorporated sometime around 1952, and the water supply was privately controlled by a powerful local businessman, Charles F. Davis. In her letters during this time there are references to backroom deals, dirty politics, lawsuits, and countersuits. Throughout this struggle Preston championed the right of the townspeople to have access to affordable services, at times even in opposition to the mayor and her fellow aldermen. Writing to Dr. and Mrs. tenBroek on December 22, 1955, she told of a particularly bad council meeting in which the mayor revealed a deal with Davis that was promptly voted on and adopted by the council. As the one dissenting vote, she says:
I left the meeting broken hearted but still had enough life in me to think a little so stayed up all night trying to get my own thinking straight… When daylight arrived I started out to make the rounds and tell the council that if nothing else we need a public record of public business but I felt compelled as a minority voter to show each where he is morally and politically wrong.
Mrs. Preston worked hard to fix what she saw as a betrayal of the town’s trust, insisting on keeping public records of actions taken by the council and consulting with the town’s legal council. Fighting hard, she rallied the council around her a week later and had this to report to the tenBroeks:
Enclosed is a copy of the charges in the slander suit. Thought you might be interested—We still have not received a citation on the misuse of public funds—But believe me both of these [cases] will be forced into court.
The preliminary hearing on the Town of Anthony vs. Davis comes up on Friday—after that we will get busy on Davis vs. the Council. The council is now united with me and we think we can give this fellow the licking he has coming.
While Mrs. Preston was fighting her political battles in Anthony, New Mexico, Dr. tenBroek’s teaching career was heating up. In a letter to Preston sent in 1954, Mrs. tenBroek relates the latest news with pride and perhaps a little trepidation:
I don't know whether we wrote you of the calamity which befell Chick this year--namely, that he was appointed chairman of the Speech Department--after sixteen years of Gerry Marsh. The University has a rule of switching chairman every five years, but you see how these things go. At any rate the extra amount of work just as Chick had swung into his best productive stride in his research is quite a blow to him and to that particular activity. The amount of work is staggering, considering all his activities and I don't know how he expects to go on very long at the pace he is setting for himself. As a matter of fact it is already telling on him. He is also teaching in summer session for the first time in five years and would never have taken it on had he known what other duties the University had in store for him. But he enjoys everything he does so thoroughly that all we do is try to keep up with him and make the routine things run as smoothly as possible.
The Federation work has expanded at such a rate that we have had to go into the house building business. At the moment there is half through construction a new wing in the front yard of 1100 square feet. Chick is madder than a hatter about having so much else to do that he can't take a real hand in the building.
In the next two years, Dr. tenBroek’s workload only increased. And, while he spent more time traveling around the country tending to his many projects, the work at home kept pace with him. During this time the Federation was headquartered in an addition to the tenBroek home, and Mrs. tenBroek managed its first office staff. One thing was certain: there was always more work to be done, and not enough hands to do it. In this letter from June 5, 1956, she describes a few of the many responsibilities they both had:
Chick at the moment, and for several long moments to come, is in the state of Nevada getting a survey of the state's blind programs underway at the request of the Governor. We have just finished a hectic two weeks on other matters including finals and the convention is at the end of the month and Chick hasn't written his speech yet. On top of all this he is supposed to be in New York on the 9th of June.
This doesn't mean any rest for the office force however. In fact, we inveigled Carrie [tenBroek’s youngest sister] to come back to work for a month--it helps to have a fast-moving tenBroek around down there. We still don't know whether we can get to the wedding. I'm still working to see if we can at least find plane transportation for Chick to get there. I think it would be a shame if the whole family got together and he couldn't be there. We had planned to drive up to Eureka for the Board meeting. The problem is to fly him to Fresno and back again to Eureka since I don't cotton to driving 350 miles alone with our three Indians.
Lillian Preston, despite teasing her older brother from time to time, had a great respect for both Dr. tenBroek and his work. Her letter sent to him after a visit with his family in Berkeley in July of 1956 shows her great admiration for the work of the Federation and the importance she attributed to it:
We were amazed at the amount of work you are doing and the amount accomplished in the Federation to say nothing of building and teaching and writing. With all of the work you both seem to be very healthy.
However, with the load you are carrying now we cannot see how you could do more so we have decided that while our children are so young and take so much parental care it would be only fair to relieve you of your very generous promise to care for our children in case we both should die in some common calamity. We know that you would be willing to make the necessary sacrifice of time and money but your work is so important that we feel we cannot impose an additional burden on you. We do appreciate your generous promise and know that you would take our girls in as members of your own family but your Federation work is more important for a lot more people than for our three--even if they are ours.
In 1957 the Preston family moved back to California, possibly seeking to get away from the demands of their busy obstetrics clinic and the stress of Mrs. Preston’s political career in Anthony. They bought a farm in Laton, where Dr. Preston continued pursuing his interest in painting, and Lillian began to take a more active role in the lives of the extended tenBroek family. The physical distance of the last ten years had done nothing to strain the ties between Dr. tenBroek and his sister, and good-natured teasing continues to show up frequently in her correspondence with him. This is evident in an undated letter, most likely sent in 1957, in which she tries to tease Dr. tenBroek into coming out to visit her on his birthday:
We are going to the Marin fair on the 4th and the fire works here because there will [be] too much clutter on the highways for us. If you and the kids could come over we could have a picnic and go to the fair together.
If Chick won’t stay around to celebrate his birthday how is he going to tell if he is getting older?
Despite the transition to a quieter life on a California farm, Preston continued her involvement in community matters. This time she chose to become a vocal critic of the local school district, where her daughters attended. Her letter from October 20, 1958, gives a view into her new life in Laton, along with another healthy dose of ribbing at both her brother’s and her own expense:
From Mom we hear you are busier than usual if that is possible so I’ll just write a quick note to tell you to slow down. Not that I expect you to pay any attention to my admonitions but it is good advice whether you take it or not. We also hear you are on a diet and have now acquired a slim trim look. This should allow a reduction in your airplane fare around the country if passenger fares were figured on the freight rates.
We are about midway thru the construction on our new house. Having more room will certainly add to the joy of living on the farm. My life consists of doing all the regular chores around the place and making bread and butter. Our neighbor has a fresh jersey cow so we have more cream than we can drink so I have been churning. With fresh butter one needs fresh home made bread so one thing leads to another… I have also been attending school board meetings in the hope that I can influence the board and the school administrators to elevate the standards in the basic subjects. This along with occasional letters to the editor of the Fresno Bee gives me the reputation of being a crank and a crack-pot which I rather enjoy.
While Mrs. Preston was enjoying her new vocation as a rabble-rouser at school board meetings, the tenBroek children were growing up. It is clear that the work of the Federation touched all members of the tenBroek household, and the family sense of civic duty did not skip a generation. A proud mother, Mrs. tenBroek describes the work of Dutch at the age of fourteen in her letter to Preston dated November 12, 1959:
The school Dutch attends is not as good as the one he went to in Berkeley, but is none the less a very fine school. He has just been asked to join a newly-formed group of boys in a service organization called the Jokers. He presented them with their first project—seeing that the California Council of the Blind candy sale is a success. The last two weeks has also seen some improvement in his desire to do a little homework which won’t hurt his grades.
The year 1960 proved to be just as busy as those that had preceded it. At times it seemed that the tenBroeks needed a chance to catch their breath. But Dr. tenBroek’s work would not wait, and he and his wife continued to wear many hats simultaneously. In January of that year Mrs. tenBroek wrote to Preston that:
This month I am late, later, latest. I am still chasing two and a half days in mid-December which I was to have while Chick was in Chicago. It turned out that Chicago was fogged in and that flight never did get off the ground. As a consequence, instead of that time to do Christmas shopping and so forth, I spent the time working with Chick and Perry Sundquist on materials they were to cover at the Chicago conference—and lost those days. Chick finally got the conference organized and left this afternoon. He’ll be back tomorrow.
Later that year things let up enough that the tenBroek family was able to make a visit to the Preston farm in Laton. It provided a much needed break for the adults and a chance for the kids to mingle. But as usual there was no rest for the weary, according to a letter from Mrs. tenBroek to Mrs. Preston sent in May:
In an effort to get this to you and your mother at a reasonable time, the second reading of your wonderful letter last received will have to be dispensed with—I can’t find it. Suffice [it] to say that Chick enjoyed it to no end and I am thanking heaven for your sturdy character….
The children, especially Anna, are still talking about the wonderful time they had with your girls. Chick and I are still talking about what a wonderfully refreshing experience it was for us to be with you and Tom. But do you realize that we got away without a glimpse of Tom’s new work?
Life goes on at its usual pace around here. Everyone is busy working on testimony that Chick will give in Washington on the 17th….
Lillian Preston had much in common with Dr. tenBroek, but they did not agree on everything. This is most evident in their political leanings. Preston was a staunch conservative, while Dr. tenBroek’s own beliefs were liberal. Both were very outspoken people, and one can only imagine the spirited discussions they must have had. In her memorial speech for Dr. tenBroek, Mrs. Preston recalled that her brother was the resident debater in the family and that he “sharpened his wits and practiced his technique on all of us, especially his father.” Preston herself was not one to back down from an argument, and a taste of this is found in her letter to tenBroek in May of 1960 when speaking of a recent visit from their sister, Carrie Turner. Given the political debate on healthcare raging through our country today, this excerpt is especially resonant:
Ted and Carrie spent only an hour here during which we tried to show them the error in their thinking about socialized medicine so I had no opportunity to assess their attitude about Mom. However, it would be inconsistent to vote for free medical care for the ‘poor old folks’ in addition to indigent care already provided, and not want public assistance and controls in all other forms. They simply could not see that all of these things are administered according to influence and pressure groups not that the actual cost in taxes is greater per family than if paid direct for the same service.
At this point I would like to point out that your own thinking is no less inconsistent than Carrie’s on this subject. I am sending along a reprint from the Congressional record to substantiate my position.
Regardless of the differences in their opinions, both siblings always kept their discussions cordial and never failed to express their respect and affection for each other. In June of 1960, at the end of tenBroek’s year-long fellowship to the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, California, Mrs. tenBroek was once again musing on Dr. tenBroek’s workload and looking forward to celebrating his birthday the next month:
Chick is on the wing again these days. But I hope that by the 5th of July he will be home for a while. It looks as though he may even be home for his birthday this year. Last year we celebrated with him in Yellowstone Park—we had a picnic in the woods and had three bears to share it with us. Chick allowed as how these were probably the most interesting dinner guests we had had for some time.
Despite the hectic schedule that often took precedence over events like birthdays, Dr. tenBroek was never one to turn down a good project or a good cause. His excitement in a letter to Mrs. Preston on July 7, 1964, about the inauguration of the International Federation of the Blind at the NFB convention shows this:
The Phoenix convention was a ripsnorter. Not content with the problems of a national federation of the blind, we have now set in motion the preliminary machinery of a world federation of the blind—certain evidence that in the end all social reformers are mad.
Mad or not, Dr. tenBroek continued his work, and his responsibilities were as wide-ranging as ever. In 1964-65, the Berkeley campus was in turmoil over the free speech movement, and as usual tenBroek was in the thick of it. This movement pitted the university administration against students, who protested the banning of on-campus political activities and sought to have their right to free speech and academic freedom acknowledged. Protests crippled the university more than once, and many students were arrested. Dr. tenBroek supported the rights of the students, as can be seen in his letter to Mrs. Preston on February 5, 1965:
[E]nclosed is the brief some of us worked up and submitted to the court requesting dismissing of the prosecutions against the students. You may like this for some leisure-time reading, if you ever have any leisure time.
In one way or another I have met all my recent dead lines: A statement on Welfare prepared for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; two briefs for two different courts; the third article on the Family Law of the Poor for the Stanford Law Review. I also survived this semester--no mean accomplishment.
I am trotting off to registration and a new batch of students to advise.
For years it seemed that nothing could slow down Dr. tenBroek. He was a force to be reckoned with and obviously enjoyed the challenges that he faced. But his life changed in 1966 when he was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent surgery to remove a tumor, but within a year it was clear that this operation had been unsuccessful. In the fall of 1967 he took what he hoped would be temporary sick leave from his professorship at Berkeley. The outlook was not good, but his doctors put him on chemotherapy in an attempt to shrink the tumor. As a result Dr. tenBroek’s life changed in many ways, although he stubbornly continued to pursue the many research projects he had in progress. Writing to Mrs. Preston in October of 1967, he spoke about what his life was like while battling cancer:
These days I live a life of complete whimsy. Having no classes, indeed no other fast appointments than those with the doctor, I rise when I feel like it and go to bed when I please. When I wake up at night I get up and work. When I feel bad during the day I go to bed.
Sadly, Dr. tenBroek lost his battle on March 27, 1968. Asked to speak at his memorial service, Lillian Preston delivered a speech that recalled her brother as a young man and a central figure in their family. But at the end she chose to pay tribute to both Dr. tenBroek and Hazel, the two friends she had corresponded with for all those years. Her speech entitled “Jacobus tenBroek—My Brother,” printed in the July 1968 edition of the Braille Monitor, ends in this way:
Theirs’ was a love that could bear any burden, hide any defect, work no ill and had no fear. Theirs’ was a love that could thrive on long hours of urgent work as well as those tender moments when he sat by her sick-bed and braided her hair. Theirs’ was a love that grew fonder with the pain and joy of raising three lively children.Chick’s life was full of wonderful blessings and the best of these was Hazel. He was a man of great vision and she was the light of his life. Whatever is said of his achievements they are due in no small measure to his faithful wife. Chick and Hazel have been a continuous source of pride and joy to the family. They have enriched the lives of all of us.