An Interview Conducted by Willa Baum
From the Editor: Thanks to Federationist Bryan Bashin, we recently received a scanned copy of an in-depth interview with Newel Perry archived in the Bancroft Library of the University of California General Library, Regional Cultural History Project, which was conducted in Berkeley, California, in 1956. The interview is so lengthy that we have decided to serialize it. In this month’s section Perry describes his youth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Please note that the transcriber consistently refers to the California Council of the Blind as the California Council for the Blind. We have consistently made this obvious correction. Here is part 1 of the 1956 interview with Newel Perry, teacher and mentor of Jacobus tenBroek:
California, particularly the Bay Area, has been the central locale of an interesting and possibly prophetic social movement, the self-organization of blind persons to promote the idea that, given proper training and job opportunities, most blind people can become self-supporting and independent, without need for further charitable services. Institutions and agencies for the blind, usually spearheaded by sighted persons, have had a long history, which began in Europe and continued in the United States, especially on the East Coast. These agencies, either governmental or private, try to help the blind by providing a general education and educational aids such as raised-type books; by teaching handcrafts; perhaps by establishing sheltered workshops, where the blind may earn some money; and by providing recreational facilities. The blind admit these are worthy objectives, but some of the leaders have felt that these agencies are actually working places for do-gooders who are wedded to the idea that the blind are and must remain helpless and dependent and, indeed, that their very lack of sight makes them in some way less mentally competent than the rest of the population.
On the West Coast a blind mathematics scholar at the University of California, Newel Perry, was concerned about the lack of vocational opportunities for the blind and in 1898 organized a small group of alumni from the California School for the Blind to consider the problem. He became convinced that a college education was the best way to fit a blind person to compete successfully in a sighted society. Dr. Perry devoted his life to improving the economic opportunities open to the blind and especially to providing opportunities for the blind to go to college if they so desired. His alumni group was the nucleus of the California Council of the Blind, established in 1934, which has achieved to date much progressive legislation for the blind in California. One of his students, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, in 1940 formed the National Federation of the Blind, which does on a national scale what the California Council of the Blind does in the state. The National Federation of the Blind, with its affiliated state organizations, has become the chief spokesman of the active, vocal, and independent blind of the United States.
To get the story of these developments from some of the blind leaders themselves, a series of interviews was conducted in the fall and winter 1955-56 by Willa Baum as part of the work of the University of California's Regional and Cultural History Project, directed by Corinne Gilb.
The following interview with Dr. Newel Perry, chief pioneer of this movement of the organized blind, took place during several afternoons at Dr. Perry's comfortable, old-fashioned home at 2421 Woolsey Street, Berkeley, where he lives with his sister. The interviews were sandwiched in between Dr. Perry's tutoring duties--he still tutors young men in mathematics--and a trip he made to investigate conditions at the Idaho State School for the Blind.
Dr. Perry, aged eighty-three at the time of the interview, of average build and below medium height, wore a neat Van Dyke beard, dressed simply but very properly, smoked his pipe almost continuously, and often paced the floor. He talked for two or more hours at a time, and, if he sometimes forgot names or details, he did not forget the major problems that had concerned the blind nor the solutions he had proposed, and, inasmuch as these problems still exist, he stated his present opinions definitely and with the same manner of authority and leadership that had enabled him to accomplish so much. Dr. Perry's only hesitancy in telling his story occurred when the truth of the situation forced him to say something less than flattering about one of his former associates. Otherwise he was eager to answer the interviewer's questions.
An almost complete set of the California Council of the Blind's convention minutes and resolutions, collected by Dr. Perry since 1934, has been deposited in the office of the California Council of the Blind, Berkeley. Information concerning the National Federation of the Blind is available in their office, also in Berkeley. Other material relating to the blind in California and elsewhere is located in Lange Library and Bancroft Library, University of California, and a sizeable collection exists at the State Library in Sacramento.
Willa Baum, Regional Cultural History Project, University of California Library, Berkeley, California, 25 July 1956
Baum: Will you tell me a little about your early childhood?
Perry: Briefly stated, I was born in Dixon near Sacramento on December 24, 1873. We were farmers, worked in the wheatfields. Our family was rather large, and I was one of the younger ones. We left in '76 and went up to Shasta County and established a home on Cow Creek about six miles east of Anderson, near Redding.
I lost my sight in 1881. The last day that I was at all conscious of vision was my eighth birthday, December 24, 1881. The cause of my blindness was a severe attack of poison oak. I heard the doctor tell my father that I was dangerously ill and that he must choose between trying to save my eyesight and trying to save my life and that the latter would be the wiser choice. After many weeks of sickness during most of which time I was unconscious, I began to recover but with the definitely established fact that I was permanently blind. I remember clearly when the day finally arrived on which I was to be permitted to get out of bed and be dressed. Many of the neighbors came to see how I would manage. There had been quite a bit of excitement about Mr. Perry's blind boy. When I started to dress, they were all elaborating at great length on how wonderful it was that I could do this or that thing, largely, I think, to make me feel better. When they handed me my shoes, two or three said, "Oh, you mustn't do that. You'll have to tell him which foot to put that on." Of course I put it on my foot myself. Well, I was the most wonderful being they had ever heard of. How would I know which foot to put the shoe on? Why, anyone would know. However, it pleased me, and I remember very distinctly that I thought I was fooling them, and I felt pretty proud of it. I never explained how I told about my shoes. I expect I was a mystery to them, and I was quite willing to keep that up.
As for melancholy or heartaches or all that sort of stuff, I never had any. In fact, I received so much attention that I rather regretted that I hadn't gone blind before. When I got up from my sickness, I felt very fine apparently, and the only great change was that all my brothers and sisters went to school. I did not go. No one ever thought of asking me to go. I wouldn't have minded going, but I think I accepted the view that I could not conform to the requirements for learning anything in school. Now I think it would have been very much better if I had gone to school, and I think I could have learned--that's my present opinion. Before I lost my sight, I had attended a one-room schoolhouse with pupils ranging from six to twenty years of age. I was about halfway through the first reader, and I had learned to count, except I couldn't remember the number thirty. My father's business was hauling lumber. There were a lot of sawmills up in the mountains east of Redding, and the timber had to be cut, sawed up into lumber, and then someone had to haul it down to the railroad at Anderson.
Baum: With a horse and wagon?
Perry: We had two wagons fastened together and eight horses driven by a jerk line. My father was inclined to keep me with him as much as he could. When we went on these trips, he would let me go along with him. The head two horses, the leaders, had bells on their shoulders, and I can remember I used to like to listen to them. He would let me ride on one of the wheelers, one of the rear horses. I enjoyed that very much. My father passed away in July of 1883 from "galloping tuberculosis." He had heard of and corresponded with the people at the School for the Blind in Berkeley, California. He never told me anything about that. So arrangements were made to send me down. I came down in August of '83. I was not quite ten years old.
Perry: As for the school, it was up here on Derby Street. Parker Street would run right into the main building. At that time the blind and the deaf children were all in the same building. There were about sixty blind children. The school was considered a school for the deaf because they had, I guess, a couple of hundred of them there. The blind were, so to speak, permitted to stay in a deaf school. They had two or three dormitories. The blind boys had two stories in one of those buildings, and the blind girls lived about the same way over in their area. There would be deaf children in that same dormitory.
The life was very new and strange to me. My experiences had been out in the country, not in the city. I knew a good deal about climbing trees and robbing birds' nests and looking at ants and helping curry the horses--we had a good many horses--and that sort of thing. But I had never been in a city, and it puzzled me a great deal. We had two teachers for the blind, so two school rooms. A lady taught the lower grades, and a gentleman, Mr. Charles Wilkinson, taught the other. They were not trained people as we speak of trained teachers now, but for some reason they were both wonderful teachers. How these two people educated all these children varying from six to nineteen or twenty has always been a mystery to me. Mr. Wilkinson had to do a great deal of individual teaching, and yet he kept us all busy. I finally got through what you would call the tenth grade now.
Baum: Was Mr. Wilkinson a relative of the principal?
Perry: He was a brother of the principal. The principal was Mr. Warring Wilkinson. Mr. Warring Wilkinson was a much better trained and educated man, but a very different type. He was strictly the administrator. Mr. Charles Wilkinson was a boy that was grown up. He was quite boyish, and he was very much loved by everybody.
Baum: Did the blind students like Mr. Warring Wilkinson?
Perry: Some did, but they didn't see as much of him. He didn't have the time to give to us. I liked him very much, and he took a great interest in me, more than he ever had in anybody, for some reason I think because... the story is this way. They decided they wanted to have a contest in arithmetic between three deaf boys and three blind boys. They tried to get the best ones they could, and I was one of the blind boys. Arithmetic came easy to me. One of the teachers of the deaf was going to put a problem of multiplication on the board and read it at the same time and we were to raise our hands when we were ready to give the answer. He said, "Multiply 297 by 368." That quick, I gave the answer. A great many of them thought that was very strange; they began to think that I knew what the example was before I came in. It was very simple. 297 is 300 minus 3, so all I had to do was to multiply by 3 twice, first to get 300 times 368 and then subtract 3 times 368 from the right answer. Well, that not only puzzled the boys but the teachers got all excited. They all thought that I was a wonder, and I didn't tell them how I did it. I thought I was getting a lot of glory, and the less I talked, the more glory I was getting. Do you understand what I did?
Baum: Yes. I think they teach the children in school now to do that.
Perry: Yes, I've always taught them to do that way. Well, that established me as a great mathematician. Numbers did come very easily to me. I did not take much interest in English. These three or four of us who were getting along to the tenth grade used to try to figure out what we were going to do when we grew up. Older people think that children don't think very much, but I think they are very much mistaken, particularly about children who are problems like we were. How could a blind person make a living? None of us ever heard of a blind man making a living. The subject of what we were going to do was avoided, avoided by me because I knew that, if I had sprung any of the hopes I had on any of the adults, they would have at once told me that that was impossible. I knew that, so I decided to keep my ideas to myself. I didn't know what I was going to do, and I was wondering, but I never felt that my case was hopeless.
Baum: Do you remember who the other boys were?
Perry: One was Cecil Smith, the son of a very prominent lawyer at that time. The two main lawyers of California were this Mr. Smith and Judge Garber. Cecil Smith was quite a bright boy, but he had many advantages. His father was successful and considered very wealthy. He had a home here in Oakland, and everybody in his family were devoting a great deal of attention to Cecil. They evidently read to him just constantly. He knew of authors and books I'd never heard of. But he had no sense for mathematics. John Coffee was a boy who had lost his sight after he was about 14 or 15 and had come to the school rather recently. The things that I liked, he didn't, and the things he liked I didn't care for. He was very good at English, but he didn't know anything about math. So, because they were poor at mathematics, they also thought I was a wonder.
The three of us would sit up at night and talk over what a blind person could do and whether we could go to college. We'd never heard of a blind person going to college. We thought we'd get some information, so we concocted a letter and sent a copy of it to the superintendents of the state school for the blind in all the different states and told them our age and what we had done and supposed that they, being the principals of these schools for the blind, would have a good many ideas. We told them we'd thought of going to college and wanted to know if they thought it was possible and desirable. I think half of them answered, and none of them told us they thought the idea of college was good and advised us to go ahead and do it. Several said, "Don't try it." One of them said, "You would be educating yourself only for a life of discontent," meaning, of course, if we did get through the university and we couldn't do anything, we'd be in an awful fix. Maybe we'd be better off if we stayed ignorant.
Baum: What did they suggest you do?
Perry: Well, some of them said that some blind people had worked in shops where they made brooms, and the blind could do that, but otherwise they gave us no suggestions at all, and I don't think they had any. A few years after I came to Berkeley, someone had urged the legislature to create a home for adult blind people in Oakland. The idea was that they could have shops and could earn some money. A good many blind came to it, but it was run by people who didn't know anything about it. It was a state job; the heads of it had never seen blind people before. The men who came were ignorant blind people who had been wandering around the world begging. In those days most blind people had to beg unless they came from a family that could supply their means for them. Oh, if you walked down Broadway or Telegraph Avenue, there would be a blind man with a fiddle on almost every street corner and he'd play and hope someone would give him a nickel.
Baum: Did the school expect the students to learn to play the fiddle and go into that way of making a living?
Perry: No, I don't think the school thought a great deal about it. They had a good teacher in music, but what he thought they were going to do with that music later to earn a living, I don't know. They all preached that we must never beg, what a disgraceful thing it was. But they never told us what we could do outside of begging. They did not assume the task of working out the problem of what a blind man can do after you've educated him, and at that time education meant a limited education.
What they did was, when he reached the age when he was no longer eligible to stay at school, they'd accompany him down to the gate and tap him on the shoulder and say, "Good luck to you," and never hear of him again for ten or fifteen years. The schools took it for granted that their responsibility was to teach them a few academic things and then send them home, and to try to make their life while they were there quite happy, which they did. I think we all had lots of fun with one another. I don't know as we thanked the teachers particularly for it. We would play all sorts of games and climb the hills and the mountains around there.
In later years I got a bill through the Legislature creating the position of a placement worker at the School. His job, and I wanted it to be his only job because I wanted him to give a hundred percent of his time to it, was to go out and interview all sorts of businessmen and possible employers and get the employer interested in taking on a blind boy. I got it through finally, and Mr. Robert Campbell—do you know him?
Baum: Yes, I met him down at the California Council office.
Perry: He was the first placement officer. He had graduated at the school, and he took that position. He did very, very well at it. I remember, it wasn't long after that that a boy came into my class up there and said he wanted to say goodbye to me. I said, "Why, where are you going? What's the matter?"
He said, "Well, I'm leaving. I got a job. I'm going to work Monday morning." Mr. Campbell had gotten him a job, of all things, working in a garage.
Baum: You attended Berkeley High School, didn't you?
Perry: Yes. It was in 1890, I guess. Mr. Wilkinson thought it would be a good thing to try the experiment of putting a blind boy in the public high school, so he wanted to send me.
Baum: How did he decide to send you?
Perry: I mentioned that I was very good in math, and, as they only had two teachers, they had me teaching the other children in mathematics in the afternoons. I enjoyed my history, math, and chemistry, but spelling and English bored me to death. That annoyed Mr. Charles Wilkinson. One afternoon Mr. Wilkinson kept me after class and gave me quite a long lecture because I wouldn't study my Latin word roots. The principal came along and heard our discussion. Well, I got very excited and sort of broke down and said that the point was that I wanted to go to college. So the next day Mr. Charles Wilkinson said to me, "I'm very glad my brother came along and saw that scene you put on, because it made it very clear to him that you were really interested." He added that they would discontinue my helping the other children in the afternoons so that I could devote more time to my studies. Later in the term the principal asked what I would think about going down to the public high school. Of course, that's what I wanted anyhow. Then during the summer I received a notice from him saying that I should come back.
Baum: You went home in the summer?
Perry: I had no home, but I'd go up to my uncle's farm and hang around...And he said that I was to go to the school at an earlier date, two or three weeks earlier, so that I could enroll in the high school. So that's how it started. I was allowed to live at the School and go down to the high school each day. The high school was not where it is now; it was on Center Street between Oxford and Telegraph. It was very small. In 1892--I took two years there--I think twelve of us graduated. I enjoyed it tremendously.
Baum: Did any other students from the School for the Blind attend with you?
Perry: No. It had never been tried. Yet, when I went down to high school, I had no particular trouble except the first few days. I think the teachers were a little bit alarmed and uneasy.
I remember, they put me into a geometry class. The teacher just never called on me, never paid any attention. I gathered that she had thought that she would have to give a great deal of attention to me and additional work, and I think she didn't like it. I guess she thought that, if she ignored me, I wouldn't be able to keep up with the class and would give it up. I couldn't understand it otherwise. It just happened that I was good at math and knew lots more about it than the other pupils did. She didn't know very much about it. In a little while I began to interrupt them. A boy would go to the board to solve a problem. We used to call them "originals." I don't think they do so much of that anymore. If he made a mistake, I would protest. That, of course, surprised them a good deal. Then the situation changed, and they changed their attitude. We were supposed to bring in the solution to these originals every day. Geometric problems were given for us to prove, and with no proof given in the book, we had to work out the proof. It wasn't any time until the boys when I'd reach Center Street in the morning and turn that corner, there was always a bunch of geometry boys around the gate near the school, waiting there with their books out for me to come and help them. (laughter). Then the teacher became very nice to me; in fact, they all did.
Baum: Did you get any help at the school? At night, when you went back to the School for the Blind?
Perry: Not at night, as we have now. That was later. They did finally give me a reader, a man who would read a couple of hours a day to me. Giving me a reader was a sort of special arrangement. It wasn't part of the system. I think the boys that came after me, the boys and girls, got this service. I don't think they had any financial help at that time.
Baum: Did Mr. Wilkinson encourage you to go on to college? After you finished high school?
Perry: Oh yes. I was two years in the high school. I wanted to get out in one year, but I'm glad the principal urged me to take two years before trying college. Then they awarded me a scholarship. Of course I couldn't stay at the school anymore after I had graduated from high school. They gave me a scholarship of $500 a year.
Baum: The School for the Blind did?
Perry: Yes. And that meant that it was up to me to live on $500 a year. That would have been almost impossible. That meant I had to pay my board and lodging, clothe myself, and also find a reader and pay him. What would happen would be that you'd have to cut down on your reader money. The first thing I knew, I was tutoring other pupils, college students.
Baum: Professors at the University got you this job?
Perry: No, I got it on my own.
Baum: Maybe the students heard about your ability?
Perry: Oh yes, some of them. A fellow who was afraid he couldn't pass his exams would want to be coached. Finally I did too much of it. I feel it is a mistake for a boy in college to do what I did, spend so much time earning money, because he will neglect his studies. He will get less out of his college training. But with the means that I had, I practically had to tutor. I got $50 a month for ten months, and by the time I'd paid my board and bought necessary clothing, I didn't have anything left. And I enjoyed coaching very much. Everybody knew me; I even advertised. Coaching was much more necessary than it is now. I took part in most all the things that were going on with the students. I went to the "rushes." They were an old institution in my day. Every year, at the end of the year, the freshmen went through the process of burying an old mathematical book. A habit of the two classes, the freshmen and the sophomores, was for one to bother the other.
Baum: That's still a habit.
Perry: They went to extremes then. I think they have stopped that. We had fireworks and parades. The freshmen would parade, and the sophomores would try to stop them. All during the year they were doing that. Why, I've had boys come and wake me up at two o'clock in the morning and tell me to hurry up and get up; there were a lot of sophomores up on the hill near Grizzly Peak, and they were going to do so and so, and it was our job to go up there with some ropes and tie them up and pile them up in a pile, if we could, and they would try to do the same thing to the other. That was called "rushing them.” The University tried to stop it then, but it didn't succeed. I understand they practically did away with it later. It became somewhat dangerous. And they would have a mob when they had that affair at the end of the year. It would be like turning the visitors to a football game down on the campus all at once to stand around and watch the struggle. We had a lot of fun. I don't know as we hurt anyone much. I suppose there were a few cases, but it looked as though it could be dangerous.
Baum: Do you think the students in the colleges were brighter than the students in the colleges now?
Perry: Well, they worked more. Of course, some bright students in the colleges work now too, but you don't have to; you can get by without it.
Baum: But you had to work when you went to college.
Perry: We had to or they would mark us way down.
Baum: Did you have any particularly outstanding professors in the University?
Perry: Yes, the head of the mathematics department was a very brilliant man, Irving Stringham. I took a great deal of work with Stringham. And Mellen W. Haskell was a very brilliant man.
Baum: Did they encourage you to go into mathematics? Did they think that would be a good profession for a blind person?
Perry: I never asked them.
Baum: They didn't discourage you?
Perry: No. They were very nice to me. They had no idea what I was going to do. I never discussed it with them. They wouldn't have known what to tell me. Of course I was a novelty, a blind boy in college. Another professor I took particular interest in was the head of the department of philosophy, George H. Howison. A very, very brilliant man. Of course we didn't have as many professors as you have now, but we had some good men. We had the LeConte brothers, a geologist and a physicist, both very brilliant men. I didn't take much interest in their so-called courses on education.
Baum: Who were the teachers?
Perry: Mr. Elmer E. Brown; he's supposed to have been a pretty good man. I guess he was. He was finally appointed to the head of the Department of Education by Congress. Not a cabinet member, subordinate to someone who was. They used to switch them around from one department to another.
Baum: How come you took education courses? Were you planning to become a teacher?
Perry: Oh, I didn't take many. One--oh, I guess more than one--to kill time, I guess. I thought I might learn something, but I didn't. They started me out, I remember, on the history of education. It wasn't a bad course, except they could have told you in a month as much as they took the whole semester to do. That rather disgusted me, and I've never been able to work up any great zeal on this education stuff.
Baum: Was mathematics your main subject?
Perry: Yes, it was my chief interest, and I took more of it than anything else. I went to Stringham one day and thought I'd raise a question with him as to whether I'd ever get a chance at teaching mathematics. I was surprised. He said he didn't see why I shouldn't. He didn't see why there'd be any particular difficulty if I knew my math. That surprised me because I would have suspected he might be a little bit like the fellow in German that I walked in... did I tell you that?
Perry: When I was a freshman, I went in to the head of the German Department, Dr. Albin Putzker, and I said to him that I wanted to be enrolled in his German class and study German. He said, "Oh no, you are making a mistake. That would be a great mistake. A blind person can't learn German." Why, I almost laughed in his face, it sounded so utterly silly. There have been a great many blind people who have been famous linguists, and he must have known that. I think it was the same thing as the way my geometry teacher in high school thought, that he would have to give me special attention.
I just walked upstairs and walked in to another professor of German and told him I wanted to be in his class, and he said, "Sure, come along. I'll be glad to have you." I thought maybe that would be Stringham's way, but he had known me pretty well by that time. He said nothing at all discouraging. So I got playing with the idea. By that time they all knew that I was coaching, largely in mathematics. It wasn’t such a novelty to them.
When I graduated, they appointed me, and Stringham was the man who did it, a Fellow in Mathematics.
Baum: Was that like a teaching assistant now?
Perry: Yes, I had classes to teach, but I don't think they paid me anything. But separate from that they had given me a scholarship of $300, I think. When I got through college I had used all my scholarship from the School for the Blind. So my first year after graduation was a tough one for me. I enjoyed the teaching. Some other fellow was trying to get a scholarship, and he wanted me to divide mine with him.
Baum: Was he another blind boy?
Perry: No, no. He became a prominent professor at college. Well, I foolishly gave it to him. So I had only $150 a year, taught three different classes, I think, for which I received nothing. It meant, of course, that I simply had to go out and earn money, so I was forced to devote a great deal of time to tutoring--more than I should have because mathematics isn't play. You have to work or else leave it alone. But I don't know what else I could have done. Then at the end of that year they advanced me to an assistant, which was a regular job. The following year they paid me $1,000, I think, and made me an instructor, and in the last year that I was there, before I left for Europe, I still ranked as an instructor, but I remember I was admitted to the Academic Senate in '99. That was my fourth year after graduation. Of course, all that time I had to tutor and study at the same time.
Baum: Was it hard on your health, do you think?
Perry: Oh no. Didn't bother me that way. It was simply that time that I should have been spending in advancing my studies in mathematics, I was coaching somebody. Coaching was not a bad business then. It's no good now. In those days wealthy people might have a boy who didn't study in high school, and he got to be a senior and found that he couldn't get a recommendation, and of course his mama and his dad wanted him to go to college, and by that time he wanted to go too. So they would come largely to me to coach him for the examinations to be admitted. The opportunity to make money wasn't bad at all.
Baum: Did it pay well?
Perry: Yes, it paid very good. I guess I coached more than anybody else and could have, I guess, devoted my time entirely to coaching and made my living that way. I remember I went to Chicago in 1899 for a summer session. They went on the principle of four sessions a year, and the summer session was somewhat like the one here, largely former graduates who came back to the department of education to hear some more about pedagogy. At Chicago they had a very fine department of mathematics. I think it was the best in the country. I preferred it, I think, to Harvard. At any rate, I went there.
Baum: Did you know Phoebe Hearst while you were in college?
Perry: Yes. She took quite an interest in me. When I went to Europe, she gave me quite a check to meet the expenses of living over there. I had a letter from her a couple of months before she died. She was a wonderful woman.
Baum: Apparently she was interested in sending blind people to school.
Perry: I don't know how much. She got interested in me, I think, through Mr. Wilkinson. [To be continued.]