Braille Monitor August-September 1986
by Kenneth Jernigan
Many younger Federationists have probably never heard of Rudolph and Martha Bjornseth--and that is a pity, for at a crucial point in Federation history these two played an important (perhaps a critical) part in saving the movement. It was during the depths of the Federation's civil war, immediately prior to and during the 1961 Kansas City convention. Rudolph and Martha Bjornseth had been Federationists in North Dakota for a long time. I don't know exactly how long, but I came into the movement in 1949, and I have the impression that Rudolph and Martha preceded me. Be that as it may, I remember having contact with them early in my Federation activity. They were quiet people; but they were strong on dedication, belief, and integrity.
In the election preceding the 1961 national convention there was a battle for control of North Dakota. Out of state members of the dissident minority (the group which was later to become the American Council of the Blind), being short on votes and a number of other qualities, came to North Dakota and tried to take over. They insisted that they had the right to vote in the election for state president and (the thing that really motivated them) delegate to the national convention. Rudolph resisted, and no amount of personal abuse or hoodlum tactics would shake him.
In the election for state president and delegate he received the majority of the votes of the North Dakota residents attending the state convention--and he intended to stand up for his rights and the movement. He came to that stormy 1961 national convention in Kansas City, and he never wavered. He was subjected to threats, insults, and a variety of other indignities. He was yelled at. It made no difference. He became a rallying point, a symbol of personal honesty and integrity--almost an embodiment of what we were and must do and be. After the convention Rudolph returned to the quiet life he had led and loved in North Dakota. He and Martha have continued to live and work through the years, supporting the movement as they could and claiming no limelight.
The thing that brought all of this to mind was an article which appeared on Sunday, April 6, 1986, in the Fargo Forum. I want to share it with you. It is a way of remembering and paying a tribute. The Bjornseths should not be forgotten. Of such as these was the Federation built:
Book of Memories
Was Written in Braille
By Bob Find, Staff Writer
These things will I remember
When all my sight is lost...
Martha puts her memories and other thoughts into verse form--in Braille. She's had poor eyesight most of her life and has been totally blind for three years.
She's gathered her poetry into a book, called After Glow. Members of her family urged her to publish the book. Her husband Rudolph pushed the hardest. He, too, is blind.
The Bjornseths live at 906 S. University Drive in Fargo. A sign with a "C" points to their house, indicating it's the office of a chiropractor. Rudolph has been practicing his profession since 1923. His wife calls him Doc. "Everyone does," she says. "He's been around so long." He'll be 88 this year.
Doc is from Bottineau County and Martha is from Kulm, N.D.. They met and knew each other slightly at the North Dakota School for the Blind when it was located at Bathgate.
After attending Moorhead State University and Jamestown College and trying and failing to find a teaching job, she went to the Scientific Swedish Massage College in Chicago.
Doc, meanwhile, graduated from the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, and passed the state examinations in Fargo all in 1923.
Martha says that in her later years, they'd run into a member of the examining board who'd tell her, "You know, if we'd have asked Rudolph a few more questions, we'd have learned a little more."
That tickles her, since Doc already was blind. "I met up with a pitchfork when I was 4," Doc says. That accident took one eye; the other started going bad when he was 9. "I went to bed perfectly OK," he says, "and I never woke up for 10 days. The doctors called it brain fever." As a result, the vision in his other eye gradually faded.
Martha, too, was born with normal eyesight, but an infection affected her eyes when she was six weeks old. "I had good partial eyesight until a few years ago," she says.
Still, the lack of vision didn't halt either of them. Doc practiced from his home farm at Bottineau and in Coopers town, N.D. "I accumulated a nice little fortune on the books," he says, "but that's all I got, the books."
He then set up his practice in Hillsboro, N.D., and looked around for a therapist. It turned out to be Martha.
"I didn't think I was going to get married," Martha syas, "but you know how it happens." They were married in 1943.
They moved their office to Fargo and were in downtown Fargo for 11 years, over the old Woolworth's and Johnson for Shoes building on Broadway, then they moved to their combined home and office on South University in 1954.
Being a sightless chiropractor isn't hard, Doc says. "I think I had a little advantage (over those with sight)," he says. "I had a little better sense of touch."
Martha says she's been writing poetry most of her life. "I used to make up little things, but I threw most of it away," she says. "But in the '50s, I began to save things. When I'd write birthday or get-well verses, I'd save them. It became so hard to get cards with the proper sentiment when I couldn't read them.
"I compose them in my head, then type them or make Braille copies. They taught us in school to use a typewriter quite efficiently."
A book, she says, "has been sort of a dream of mine. The last five-six years I've probably written more than I did a number of years before. Some of my family kind of pushed on having the book. Doc pushed harder than everybody."
She typed the book herself, then had her sister check it over. Some friends from their church, First Lutheran, helped also. She had 250 copies printed, and now she's attempting to place them into local stores on consignment.
They sell the books for $13, losing about $2 on every book. "But it's mostly something I want to leave behind, so I'm not worried about that," she says.
The Bjornseths have a son, in Kingston, N.Y., three granddaughters, and a great granddaughter. "They say she's cute as a bug's ear," Doc says. "I don't know, I haven't seen her yet."
Each of Martha's poems has a story behind it.
"Little Lake Herman," which her poem says is "deserted, except for the birds' evening song" is really just a pond near Kulm. "I stretched the point there," she says. Her maiden name is Herman, which gave the "lake" its name.
Another poem, "A Christmas Gift for the Sparrows," begins:
"He sleeps beneath the drifted snow, Our little Peter Pet."
"That was our parakeet," Martha says. "There never was one like it. When it died, we buried it in the garden. We had some bird seed left over, and we gave it to the sparrows."
There are several Christmas poems. "I started writing out Christmas verses and putting them on Christmas stationery," she says. "It got to be a yearly thing. Christmas used to be special when we were younger. Now we sit like a pair of old fogies, which is what we are."
Doc only chuckles.
"Twas the Night After Christmas" tells of Doc working on his latest woodworking project. He has turned out tables, a candelabra and other items from black walnut. "He makes it better without sight," his wife says. "There's sighted people that make awfully sloppy joints."
The poem concludes, "Chip away, chip away, chip away Doc."
Doc doesn 't chip away any more, however. A bad case of shingles ended his woodworking hobby. The illness still gives him considerable pain.
Martha gave up her therapy work some time ago, but Doc still practices.
Martha says, "He still takes a few old-timers because they don't know where to go." Doc says he's going to let his license run out this fall, however.
"It's been a good life," Doc says. "I don't think I could trade it for any better."
Martha used to play the piano, but "now my hands are too stiff," she says. "They say it's a deterioration of the central nervous system. I lost my sense of balance, too, so it's hard to walk." As a result, Doc does the cooking and a college student comes in to clean their home.
Martha's memory remains sharp. It leads to such poetic lines as:
My memory stores such simple things
Through years undimmed, unblurred,
One bird 's song out of season
In an autumn twilight heard;
One towering maple turning
To gold at the summer's end.
One transitory snowflake
On the coat sleeve of a friend.
"I remember," Martha says, "a little bird singing late in the fall. It was unusual; they don't usually sing then. It kind of stayed in my mind. And I remember a perfect snowflake on my schoolmate's blue coat. After all these years, I still see it."
She wrote "These Things Will I Remember" when she realized what eyesight she had left soon would be gone:
These things will I remember
When all my sight is lost;
The changing hues of sunsets
The sparkle of hoarfrost,
Blue morning glories, twining,
My love, fair haired and smiling,
As he first came to me.
"If you knew Doc before he turned gray," says Martha Bjornseth, "you'd know who those last lines were written about."