Senator Thomas Schall of Minnesota (left) and Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma (right) pose with new white canes raised at a busy corner on Capitol Hill on May 31, 1932.
Thomas David Schall
by Peggy Chong
From the Editor: Peggy Chong, who now works at the National Center for the Blind, served several years as President of the Metro Chapter of the NFB of Minnesota. When the affiliate celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1995, Peggy did a significant amount of research into the history of the blind in the state. A version of the following article appeared in the Minnesota Bulletin in 1996. It's a delightful profile of one of the state's most colorful politicians. Here it is:
Many of us have heard of the young man, Torrey Westrum, running for the House of Representatives from northern Minnesota in this fall's election. The press has marveled at his courage. But he is just following several other blind Minnesotans into politics.
Our most famous blind Minnesota politician must be Thomas David Schall. Friends as well as enemies of Mr. Schall all would agree that in his day he was a strong force on our country's political scene.
Thomas David Schall was born in Michigan on June 4, 1878. After his father's death in 1880, his mother left Michigan to make a life for herself and her son. They eventually settled in Traverse County, Minnesota, where his mother took work as a cook. From early childhood Tom led a tough life. At an early age he was selling papers in the streets until late at night. He tells of sleeping in boxes in the streets of Minneapolis after selling his last paper for the night. Being able to dance and having a strong voice, he joined the circus for several months. After that he found himself back with his mother in Wheaton. Wanting the best for her son, his mother arranged for his adoption by a wealthy farmer with the understanding that Thomas would get a good education. Instead of school Thomas was put to work on the farm. His first attempt to run away was unsuccessful. But the second time he made it back to his mother.
Tom started school at the age of twelve in Wheaton. He went to Ortonville High School, where he was persuaded to enter an oratorical contest in which he won first prize. He went on to the state competition and won second place. Previously his interests had been fighting and baseball; now he turned to public speaking. His oratorical gift earned him a scholarship to Hamlin University. After transferring to the University of Minnesota in 1900, he continued to win honors for himself and his school in the Northern Oratorical League. While at the University of Minnesota, he also won the Pillsbury Prize. He once told a reporter that the more expensive the suit he wore for the contests, the higher his placement.
Thomas earned his A.B. degree from the University of Minnesota in 1902 and received his LL.B. degree from the St. Paul College of Law in 1904. He was admitted to the bar in 1905. He and his new bride set up housekeeping while Thomas began his practice in corporate law. He understandably felt that things had turned out right well for him.
In 1907 he was trying a case in Fargo, North Dakota. Court had recessed for lunch. Thomas and another attorney went to the cigar stand to purchase cigars. The other attorney lit his cigar with a match. But Thomas lit his with a new electric cigar lighter. The lighter exploded and hurled Schall backwards.
His arm was seared, but he still went back into court to finish the day. Thomas noticed that day that his vision was a bit unfocused. As the days progressed, he lost more and more of his sight. Within a year Schall was totally blind.
Schall and his wife went to doctor after doctor, hoping for a cure. They exhausted their savings and sold all their belongings, including his law library, and eventually everything they owned. Tom heard of a doctor who had a new surgical procedure. But it would cost a lot of money--money that they did not have. He had to go back to work. A friend gave him some space in his law offices. Gradually his confidence returned. He focused on personal injury law. Soon he forgot about chasing after a cure for his blindness and opened his office in the Security Building in Minneapolis, an office he kept for many years.
Margaret, his wife, became his personal secretary both in the law offices and in Washington. While attending the University of Minnesota before she married Tom, she had earned extra money reading to a professor who was losing his sight. Given Thomas's past and her knowledge of what the blind professor had accomplished at the University, she urged her husband to continue in his practice of law.
The Schalls also began their family at this time. Their first son, Thomas, Jr., was born in 1911. Richard was born in 1913, and their only daughter, Padget Ann, was born in 1920.
As a favor Schall began making speeches for his friends who were running for political office. These speeches were successful for his friends and himself as well. Soon he decided to run for political office himself, filing for the Congressional seat as a Progressive in 1913.
All of his life (just like his father) he had been a Republican. But when Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Schall's hero, bolted from the Republican Party, so did Tom. He rejoined the Republican Party a few years later but was always on the outside because of his defection and unwillingness always to follow the party line.
Schall began his term as the first blind Congressman on March 4, 1915. He was re-elected each year until 1925, when he began his first term as Minnesota's blind U. S. Senator. In the house he chaired such committees as the Committee on Alcohol Liquor Traffic and the Committee on Flood Control. He also served on the Rules Committee.
One thing he loved to do was to speak to the people. It is said that he would talk to any group at great length on current issues. Most of his supporters were the poor people of Minnesota. He would address crowds, primarily outdoors at community picnics or on street corners, from the back of a car. It didn't matter to him. It has been said that, if three people were found loitering outside his Lake Harriet home, he would take the opportunity to speak from his retaining wall to those who would listen.
He did not forget his blind brothers and sisters. Tom Schall was the first legislator to accept an invitation to speak to the convention of the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind in June of 1924. The MSOB counted Schall as a friend in the Congress and contacted him on issues such as the pension for the blind bill. While in the Senate, Schall met with MSOB representatives over the Robbins bill, the forerunner of the Randolph-Sheppard Act that gave blind people the preference in running vending stands on federal property.
The press of Minnesota was Democratically-controlled and therefore had little to say in support of Schall. But this did not bother him. He gave as good as he got. His associates described him as "unyielding" and "not afraid of any man." Schall took his work seriously, serving on his committees as well as attending and participating in committees he was not a member of. At one time he was described as "blazing forth in strong and vivid language" to make his point for the State of Minnesota. He also took great pride in the fact that he was able to answer all his letters within a twenty-four-hour period.
William Randolph Hearst was a big supporter of Thomas Schall. With his support came many front-page articles about the Senator in his many papers. This also prompted criticism back home. His opponents tried to paint him as part of an Eastern block of politicians and not interested in the affairs of Minnesotans. Yet with each election Schall's popularity grew.
Schall voted to repeal prohibition so that men and women would be able to purchase better liquor openly. He was the first Senator to stand up and strongly oppose President Roosevelt's New Deal. Tom lobbied hard for an import ban because he believed that eliminating imports from other countries that duplicated American goods would allow more Americans to go back to work and end the depression. He openly commended people and communities that refused federal support in order instead to make it on their own. Politics was not his only love. Since childhood he had loved working on farms and taking care of the animals, particularly horses. In October of 1935, while visiting his daughter's school in Virginia, Tom showed off his skill as an equestrian. Using a buzzer system that he had devised, Schall rode the horse around the arena and then took it over four-foot jumps.
Other hobbies included flying and shooting. He was seen many times flying from D. C. to his home in Maryland on an autogiro. When he could, he chose to fly across the country. Both of his sons had pilots' licenses. He also enjoyed target shooting at his Maryland home. He would focus on sound. Sometimes a person would stand at a great distance and hit the target with a stick. It is said that he was a pretty good shot.
Thomas was never ashamed of blindness. Most often he could be found in the front row of the Senate House with his cane between his knees. Early photos of Thomas Schall show him using a walking stick. Many times he traveled with his wife or one of his staff. A German shepherd police dog named Lux was given to Schall to walk through the streets of Washington. Lux earned a following of his own. The dog's picture was used to sell dog food.
In 1926 Schall and Senator Wadsworth introduced a bill that would allow a guide dog to accompany his master on public transportation and in other public places. Traveling back and forth between Minneapolis and Washington alone, Schall was forced to put Lux into the baggage car on every occasion. The railroads would not allow Lux to accompany his master into the public train cars or a private compartment.
Lux died in 1933 and was replaced by Rex. Schall found that things were different with another German shepherd dog that had not been raised at his Lake Harriet home.
Thomas Pryor Gore and Senator Thomas Schall, the two blind Senators, posed for press photos in 1932 carrying new white canes with contrasting red tips that would make it easier for motorists to see a blind person using a cane while crossing the street.
On December 19, 1935, Thomas Schall stopped on his way home in Maryland to do some shopping. As he and a sighted aide who worked in his office were crossing the street, they were hit by a car. Thomas Schall died two days later on December 22. He was buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. The state and the nation mourned the loss of a strongly opinionated and tireless supporter of the poor and working classes.
After his death there was some talk of a conspiracy that may have caused Thomas Schall his life. Within a short period three of the strongest opponents of FDR's New Deal died in terrible accidents. Some of Schall's staff asked for an in-depth investigation into the accident, but nothing ever came of it. The man who hit Senator Schall and his aide had no political connections.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Barbara Pierce using her educated fingers to knit]