by Anna Kresmer
From the Editor: The following is another in our series of profiles and historical documents in the Jacobus tenBroek Library.
Summing up the work of Perry Sundquist is not easy. A major figure on the scene from the early days of the NFB until his death in 1987, Sundquist served in many roles at both the state and national levels, most notably as member of the national executive committee, as editor of the Braille Monitor, and even briefly as president. A social worker and public administrator by trade, Sundquist was also a writer and one of the NFB’s first historians. He was also the first Monitor editor to run a series featuring letters from the archives.
Born William Perry Sundquist in Hibbing, Minnesota, in 1904, he initially attended public school in Manitoba, Canada. In 1913 his family moved to Washington state, where a public school principal told his mother that her son would never get past the sixth grade because of his limited mental ability—prompting Sundquist to explain that he’d be a fine student if only he could see the board. Shortly after this exchange he was transferred to the school for the blind in Washington and in 1918 to the California School for the Blind. There he proved his mental capacity, quickly becoming one of Dr. Newel Perry’s “boys,” and in 1920 he befriended the young Jacobus tenBroek. He graduated from high school in 1922 and went on to attend the University of California. In 1928 Sundquist received his BA in political science and stayed on to complete two years of graduate work in education and social work. He met his wife, Emily Wright, as an undergraduate, and they married in 1931.
Sundquist spent the majority of his professional career in public welfare work for the blind in California. In 1935 he conducted a statewide study on the economic status of the blind for the California Department of Education. From 1936 to 1941 he served as executive secretary of the American Brotherhood for the Blind (now the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults) under the leadership of his old teacher, Newel Perry. In 1941 Sundquist became chief of the Division for the Blind in the California State Department of Social Welfare, a position he held until his retirement in 1968.
Through the years Sundquist embraced many leadership roles including secretary of the Los Angeles County Club of Adult Blind from 1930 to 1934 and, from 1934 to 1939, second vice president of the California Council of the Blind (CCB), which became the California affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. That year he was elected president of the Los Angeles County Club, but the records do not reveal how long he held this office. In 1961 Sundquist entered the NFB national scene when he was elected first vice president. In April 1962 he ascended to the presidency when Dr. tenBroek’s first successor, John Taylor, resigned. However, Sundquist did not seek reelection at the 1962 convention in July, stepping aside in favor of Russell Kletzing, who served as president until tenBroek’s return in 1966. Sundquist was a member of the NFB executive committee from 1962 to 1968, at which time then-President Kenneth Jernigan appointed him editor of the Monitor, from which position he retired in 1977. He also served on various NFB committees, including the budget and finance committee.
Sundquist was honored for his work during the 1956 semi-annual convention of the CCB in a speech given by tenBroek, who called him the “strong administrative arm of the movement.” In 1959 he received the Newel Perry Award. He is also the author of A History of the California Council of the Blind, 1934-1969, and Aid to the Blind in California: Fifty Years of Program Development 1919-1969, both published in 1969.
Recognized by his friends and colleagues for his quick wit and wry sense of humor, Sundquist sprinkled his correspondence in the tenBroek Papers with zingers and jocular one-liners. But his 1971 letter to Jernigan praising the descriptive writing skills of the young Mary Ellen Anderson, known to Federationists today as Mrs. Jernigan, truly illustrates his sometimes playful personality. Here is his letter.
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
4651 Mead Avenue
Sacramento, California 95822
The Braille Monitor
Perry Sundquist, Editor
January 17, 1971
I have just read with great interest Mary Ellen Anderson's report to you on her efforts in Rhode Island.
Obviously, Mary Ellen is tops as an organizer--but what is even more important, she has become the modern Hemingway as a writer--that incisive, staccato-like word picture which she draws of people. It’s terrific! I would like to commission Mary Ellen, through you, to do a series of vignettes for the Braille Monitor--on each of the members of the executive committee. I, for one, agree in advance not to quarrel with whatever she writes about me. Tell Mary Ellen how very much I appreciate her word pictures.