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. Willa Baum conducted the interview in Berkeley, California, in 1956. The interview is so lengthy that we have been forced to serialize it. The first installment appeared in the July 2012 issue. The second section, covering graduate school in Europe and the New York years, appeared in the October issue. This third installment includes discussion of notable figures in the blindness field and the internal struggles in the California School for the Blind that brought Perry back to California.
Baum: Did you come into contact with Charles Campbell? I think he's the fellow who founded Outlook for the Blind.
Perry: Campbell? Oh, I know who you mean. Yes, I knew Charles Campbell very well. He was the son of a blind man. His father was an American and became quite a prominent musician, and he went on tours through England, where he would give musical performances. England wanted to do something to improve the lot of their blind, and they decided to build an institution, a school, so they asked him to take charge of it. (Francis Campbell, Sir Francis. His wife was Lady Campbell.) He was a very competent man. His blind pupils were noticeably successful. He was quite a hand at propagandizing. He told wonderful stories about his students. A great many people criticized him as being an exaggerator--he undoubtedly was very intensely interested in helping the blind, and collecting money in England was a little slow, but he did build up an institution there that was very much respected.
His son Charles grew up with an interest in the same thing, and he became a propagandist and traveled around the country here lecturing. He married a very lovely woman. She was in California when I first knew her. I was in New York when they were booming the idea of having these shops for the blind. Charles was engaged in that sort of work in Boston, but he came to New York to lecture. Charles Campbell was a very efficient man too. He was enthusiastic, a good talker, and he was very optimistic about it.
Many of the people who were connected with the blind were not optimistic. That was the one trouble with the schools that we had. The superintendents were selected, evidently, in a very careless way, and none of them were particularly men of ability, and some of them didn't have much of an education. Those men rather belittled Charles Campbell. They said he was just a hot-air artist making a big noise and that a great deal of what he said was not reliable. That's because they couldn't believe it.
You see, our schools for the blind were filled with people who didn't understand the blind and didn't believe in their capabilities at all. At that time the feeling generally was that the blind couldn't do anything anyhow, but it was very wonderfully nice of certain people to come and help the blind. The teachers of the blind were looked upon as sort of saints and missionaries, and they were quite willing to accept that admiration. But they were not progressive nor imaginative. I don't know that they are yet.
Baum: Well you must not have agreed with Charles Campbell on the shop idea.
Perry: Oh, I didn't bother much about it. I wasn't working for it in any way. I was friendly to him. I didn't mind their building shops for the blind if they wanted to, but I had the feeling that fifty years from then the people would not have acquired independence through self-support. And I don't think they have. These shops don't develop men of ability; they don't try to. They are frequently run by men who don't know anything about it. Then the blind themselves did nothing, said nothing, were not articulate--they were afraid to talk. As a result very little was accomplished. That is what we, in the past few years, have done. We deliberately and with forethought planned to make the blind assume the responsibility of bettering the condition of the blind.
Baum: Did you know Charles Campbell and his wife as personal friends, or did they ask you for advice?
Perry: Yes. Well, they did sometimes. No, I think they were possibly inclined to give me advice.
Baum: You liked them?
Perry: Yes, I thought they were very nice people. Of course, they were not interested in the subject I was interested in. You see, you can't do everything. You can't start a group of people who will devote their time to entertaining and trying to supply the blind with some amusement, take them out riding...I don't want to belittle that, that's all right, but five hundred years from now they'd be doing the same thing. Those blind people that they attend are not independent and never will be and don't particularly want to be.
Baum: Well Campbell didn't do that, did he?
Perry: No, no. Campbell was interested in helping the blind, but it was largely teaching them trades. The idea of a blind man getting an education and becoming a doctor or lawyer or something like that, that was something like a Cinderella story. He didn't take it seriously, and no one else did. When I came to New York, I could find only one blind man who had ever gone to college.
Baum: Is that right? No wonder it sounded like a fairy story.
Perry: New York is just packed full of colleges, so I thought, when I came, that there must be quite a number of blind college graduates. I couldn't find any. I'd ask about them, and no one had ever heard of one. But there was one man who had gone to college. He was a classmate of the man who was president of Columbia at that time. He tells the story that at the graduation from college this blind boy and this future president of Columbia were the two contestants for being the most outstanding student of the class, and the president got it. This blind man went into mathematics, gave lectures at Columbia University.
Baum: What was his name?
Perry: I can't think of it.
Baum: Did you know Robert Irwin then? He went to college, didn't he?
Perry: Yes, Robert was from the state of Washington, went to the school for the blind there, and later went through the university. Then he moved to New York and started the plan of sending blind children, not to residential school, but to the public schools. He then went to Ohio, and he'd get classes started in the public schools for the blind. He did that in two or three of the cities there. Then he came to New York City and got interested in starting the American Foundation for the Blind. He was quite an able man and made a real success out of the creation of this foundation. It's done a great deal for the blind, I think. Of course, they don't run shops. They try to help all the activities for the blind throughout the country. They've now gotten fairly well established. I expect their yearly expenditures run up close to a million dollars.
Baum: Did Robert Irwin favor college education for blind people?
Perry: Oh, I think so. I don't think he was as enthusiastic as I was. Many of the things that I had to work for, which were new and people couldn't understand, nowadays they just take as a matter of course. A blind boy in former days couldn't go to college, didn't have the money, and didn't think he could work his way through college. They could, I guess. I earned most of my way through college. So did Robert Irwin. He had to go around and peddle things from house to house. He had great difficulties going to college. They had no reader bill. He had to try to get people who were willing to help him a little bit to read to him.
Baum: I heard somewhere that you and Robert Irwin worked together to defeat a movement for a national college for the blind.
Perry: I don't know as we did very much about it. I guess we both would oppose it.
Baum: Did you do any work together on it?
Perry: Well, we talked about it and evidently thought about the same thing and probably expressed ourselves. I know, I wrote to some of the different people about it. The contention to have it was not very strongly pushed. It's an absurd idea.
Baum: It's an idea that has come up again and again, hasn't it?
Perry: Oh, I don't think it will come up any more, not seriously, anyhow. What would a college for the blind be? They get in college, and with their reader funds, they're just like anybody else. They are at no disadvantage. They can go to Columbia or the University of California. They can have the best of teachers. Now, if the federal government started a college for the blind, they wouldn't have men like Einstein teaching in it. It would be a mediocre, insignificant thing where they would give out degrees because they were blind people, I expect. No, I think after a blind person reaches the eleventh or twelfth grade, it's better for him to work with sighted people. He's got to live with them. He's not going to make any money off of blind people. If he's going to get ahead in the world, he wants to have the ability to approach sighted people.
Baum: I wondered what you thought of Robert Irwin.
Perry: I think he did good work. He built up the American Foundation for the Blind quite well.
Baum: Was he ever a member of the National Federation?
Perry: Oh no.
Baum: He didn't approve of that?
Perry: Well it worried him a little. He would come to the meetings, but usually just to see me.
Baum: You were friends?
Perry: Yes. But he was afraid that the Federation was going to hurt the Foundation. I don't know why it should; but they both feel that way.
Perry: Both the Foundation and the Federation. The Foundation is trying to antagonize and oppose the Federation, and the Federation criticizes the Foundation a lot.
Baum: Do you think it's a valid criticism? Of the Foundation?
Perry: I never heard any systematic criticism. Just that they don't like them. I don't know why. I don't see any occasion for them to criticize one another adversely at all.
Baum: You think the Foundation does good work for the blind?
Perry: It doesn't do the work that the Federation is doing, but it doesn't try to. Different kind of work; their policies are different. The Foundation likes to play with the agencies. It isn't built on the principle of the National Federation. The Federation says to the blind, "If you want something, it' s up to you to go and get it. You've got to quit depending on someone else; you've got to organize yourselves and go get it." And I believe that. I think that's right. The Foundation is interested in psychology of the blind, or something of that kind. Personally, Irwin was self-centered and a selfish individual. I don't know that many people aren't. He was very much interested in himself and was quite an efficient man and, from his point of view, very successful. He died a rich man. Started out as a boy with nothing. Intensely interested in his own welfare, which is all right, I guess.
Baum: Did you know Walter Holmes while you were in New York?
Perry: Walter Holmes? Very well. He wanted to start a Braille magazine. He was not blind, but he was very much interested in the blind. Wonderful fellow. We met in a library and became great friends. He got Mrs. Matilda Ziegler, a widow whose husband had been a very wealthy explorer to the North Pole, to put up the money for the magazine. Of course, now there are a great many magazines for blind people.
Baum: Is that called the Matilda Ziegler Magazine?
Perry: Yes. [Shows Braille magazines.]
Baum: Did you think this Matilda Ziegler Magazine was a good one?
Perry: It's better now than it was. It was very popular; they must have had ten or fifteen thousand readers. Holmes had been a newspaper man. He had a blind half-brother in whom he took a great deal of interest. The blind boy wasn't particularly bright or talented or trained for anything, and it used to worry Holmes. The father said, "Don't bother him; just be kind to him and let it go at that."
Holmes took out a lot of insurance on himself with the blind boy as beneficiary, but the blind boy died first, and Holmes lived to be quite old. Wonderful man. He somehow understood the blind thoroughly. While most sighted people want to be kind to blind people, they don't understand them. Holmes was a bachelor; he devoted all his life, morning, noon, and night, to helping blind people.
This Ziegler magazine was the first Braille magazine in this country. Holmes thought it was quite important that blind people have a magazine because they can't pick up as much through experience as other people. Holmes was not interested in making a profit; he just wanted to help the blind. A man once wanted him to leave the magazine for the blind and come in with him on another business. Holmes said, "I'm not interested in making money."
The other man said, "I am; I've made a whole lot of money, and I don't know what else to do but keep on making money." Holmes turned him down. So the fellow went on with his plan and made two million dollars in the next year and a half. Then he asked Walter Holmes if he were sorry he hadn't gone in with him. Holmes said no, he wouldn't know what to do with a million and a half if he had it.
Baum: Did he favor your reader's bill?
Baum: Did he give you any publicity in his magazine?
Perry: He would have, but I told him I didn't want any. I had gone before to The Outlook--that magazine has been discontinued--I don't mean Outlook for the Blind, but The Outlook, a weekly magazine. Theodore Roosevelt was the editor on The Outlook for a while. The real editor, who wrote editorials in The Outlook, was a very famous editor, Lyman Abbott. So I gave him a summary of what the reader bill was, and he wrote an editorial on it, quite a lengthy one. I gave him a copy of my letter to the governor, and he referred to that a good deal in the editorial. (Outlook, Vol. 86, p. 938, August 31, 1907) It was an extremely popular magazine all over the country....After the bill was signed, he wrote an article about it. He was a very brilliant man.
Baum: Was Major Migel working for the blind at the time you were in New York? Migel of the American Foundation for the Blind?
Perry: When I first got up that club I organized for blind people--Miss Holt's blind people--she came to the meeting (she would always bring some guests with her, society people) one time and brought Migel. Migel got very much excited. He was very much taken with me; we were great friends, for the moment, anyhow. He wanted me to come down to his office. He turned out to be a very wealthy man, a silk merchant. So he said, "If you would be interested in this--I've got to go to Europe for a couple of months--but if you would hunt out these blind people that you think are desirable for us to do something for them, educationally or otherwise, get familiar with their names, so that when I come back, we'll go over it and see what we can do." Well, that was really a wonderful proposition because he was a man who was intensely interested in the blind, and he had the money and the desire to help. So I said that I would try to, but of course I was tutoring and had limited time. But he insisted.
Miss Holt heard about this. Of course she was up in arms. In the first place she had introduced me to Migel. But, when Migel was thinking of doing something that wasn't in her line, she was worried. She was very fond of newspaper publicity and loved to read about what she had done, while Migel would just as soon his name never occurred in the paper. That wouldn't interest him at all. She was so antagonistic to him in talking to me that I could see that, if I went on with what Migel wanted, I'd have to stop doing things that I had been doing for her.
That would be a very undesirable thing, so I decided to tell Migel that I was giving all my time to Miss Holt. So I rang up one of his lieutenants and told him that I would have to postpone any work or let it go. The man said, "Of course, I have no authority in this matter, but I do know that Mr. Migel would be very disappointed if you didn't work for him."
Of course Migel didn't understand and wouldn't understand my relationship with Miss Holt particularly, so I told the man that it would be impossible for me to do it until Migel got back. When he got back and was told by his informants that I had withdrawn from that work, I suppose he just thought that was the end of it. I didn't keep up my acquaintance with him anymore. Robert Irwin came along then and got in touch with Migel, and Migel did a great deal helping him start that American Foundation, still does.
Baum: After your stay in New York you came back to the school for the blind in Berkeley. I believe about the first thing you did was to get married.
Perry: Yes, I think April 19, 1912.
Baum: How was the school in 1912? Was it improved from the time you left?
Perry: Some of the old teachers were gone, and they had new ones. Nobody seemed to be doing much work. There was less zeal in the school. The School for the Deaf and Blind had been disorganized by political interference. Dr.Wilkinson resigned a couple of years before. He had been principal for forty some-odd years.
Baum: Why did he resign? Old age?
Baum: Wasn't any political trouble, though.
Perry: Not that. Two or three of the different employees wanted to succeed Dr. Wilkinson. They had some students, too, who made trouble. There was Miss Mary White Eastman, a blind graduate of the School, who was a teacher of the blind children, little children, in what they called an "opportunity group" for retarded children. She was a woman who had never had any experience or training except that she was naturally a very good teacher. She was very ambitious and wanted to be made the head of the blind department. Then there was Mr. Douglas Keith, an Englishman, who had been the secretary to the principal for many years, and a teacher of the deaf, Francis E. H. O'Donnell, a Scotsman, who wanted to be appointed. The school was run by a board of five members who were prominent people, and they served without compensation. They were the people who would select the principal. So they appointed Mr. Keith.
Baum: Had Keith done any teaching?
Perry: He had done teaching before he came there. A good many of the teachers got playing around among the politicians, complaining about the school, that it wasn't being run properly, and so forth. Some of them got the children excited. The place was terribly demoralized.
Baum: This was after Mr. Keith had been appointed?
Perry: Yes. The people that had been disappointed were complaining. Finally the appeal was made to the Governor, Hiram Johnson, and so he ordered an investigation. I suppose it lasted for a month or two. I wasn't here then. There were also a great many complaints about Mr. Wilkinson, though he had left. The investigators came down every day and had a hearing and everybody was called in to talk, tell his story, the older boys and some of the alumni. Some of the alumni wanted jobs up there, and they didn't get them; I guess they should not have had them. They began to feel their oats.
Well, it was made very hard for Mr. Keith. He decided to resign. He sent me a telegram to come out and take the position as head of the blind department. He was going to leave on a certain day, but he stayed until he got my reply that I would come. So I simply took the train and came out.
Baum: Had you been corresponding with the school while you were in New York?
Perry: Not much. Once in a while. Mr. Keith and I had been very close friends while I was here. He was a fine man, but he got into the wrong mess. There was so much jealousy and hard feeling that it looked as if it would be a hard thing to handle. So the governor's recommendation was that Mr. Keith should be removed and that the board should get a new man. Things got hotter, with everybody trying to get the governor to get him in. The board was in favor of Mr. Keith. It didn't want to get rid of him, but the governor insisted.
When I came out, they had a teacher of the deaf as acting principal, not one who had been a troublemaker at all, but one of the head men, William Andrew Caldwell. He had been there for many years and was practically the head of the deaf department. He was a great friend of Mr. Wilkinson too. The board complained to the governor that they didn't know any good man to get. The governor said that he had received word from several men in the East that wanted the job, and he thought some of them were very good.
There was a man who had been in the Colorado State School for the Deaf and Blind. L. E. Milligan was his name. He came out and took the job. He had a good deal of trouble, too, to start with because everybody was wanting a higher position. He was very tactful in many ways. He of course got into this political mess that was going around, and there was a good deal of ill feeling.
Baum: Did the two teachers stay on--Miss Eastman and--
Perry: Yes, Miss Eastman stayed. And O'Donnell. That was a mess. Mr. Caldwell kept his position as head of the deaf department. He tried not to make much trouble. They were all very embarrassed because of the politicians.
Baum: Who do you mean, politicians?
Perry: Real politicians, members of the legislature, people who were friends of the governor.
Baum: You mean this group that had been investigating?
Perry: Yes. But Milligan kept them pretty quiet.
Baum: Was Mr. Keith still working at the school?
Perry: No, he left. When I got here, he was a man without a job. The row had spread to the Oakland Home for Adult Blind, and they investigated down there for a year or so too. The Home was run by a very capable blind man, Mr. Joseph Sanders, who became ill and died about that time. The Home was directed by a board. They came to see me to find out whom I would suggest as the new director. I recommended Mr. Keith and pointed out that he was a very capable man and that he had lost his job rather unfairly because of a political upset and [through] no fault of his own. They offered me the job instead, but I turned them down; there was nothing educational about it. So they appointed Mr. Keith, and he did a good job down there.
When they were having their investigation, the alumni split. A few were in with the politicians, but the alumni that I had organized before I left in '98 upheld Mr. Keith. So when Milligan came, of course, he had to make up his mind whether he was going to be a friend of these alumni or of the ones that had been making the trouble. He didn't want to be an opponent of the governor, for, if it hadn't been for the governor, he wouldn't have gotten his job, so he joined the wrong party, the governor's party. But all the progressive blind, whom I had organized before, were friends of Keith, and, instead of the trouble dying out, it got worse and worse.
When I got here, I tried to bring the two groups together, but I couldn't get anywhere. The other group were people with no education and no ability of any kind; they were nobodies. They had no ideas on how to improve the situation and I guess didn't particularly care. One of them, the leader, Mr. Don Darrow, wanted a job at the school. He was a man of no education beyond graduating from the school. No college. He was not esteemed by anybody. I guess Mr. Milligan would have been very glad to give him the job, but he was afraid because it would start the other blind people, my group, up in arms. The feeling between them was very intense.
We got up a club and had both groups meeting together until Darrow's group made it impossible, and so we just gave up the attempt. We were trying to help the alumni get jobs and get started in business. I remember that once the alumni wanted to have some money to do something with, so I gave them a donation, I think $100. Then when we found the two groups of alumni couldn't get along, we dropped out and didn't do anything further with Darrow's group. Next thing I heard, they had taken the $100 that was to be spent on trying to help some of the fellows get started in business and used it to give themselves a picnic and ride around San Francisco Bay.
Baum: That group didn't have any ambition for improvement!
Perry: Oh no, they didn't have any ideas. The school had run down very much. The boys grew up and were rather rough and rude and had evidently not studied anything; they had very few textbooks.
Baum: Was Mr. Milligan able to improve things?
Perry: Well, he tried to, but he...you see, the children that had been there had been under the influence of the people who had been making the trouble. They still tried to associate with the children. That caused trouble. They were in opposition to anything that I wanted to do.
Baum: Did Mr. Milligan stay on as principal?
Perry: Yes, he stayed until he died, which was quite a while later.
Baum: What did he think of your organization of alumni?
Perry: I think he thought it was a very fine thing but that the organization did not support him very strongly. I believe a lot of them thought he wasn't overly fond of me. I don't think he had any feeling against me. He simply was a little afraid to be over-friendly because he was afraid of this other mob. Since the governor had removed Mr. Keith, it looked as if Darrow's crowd was the right crowd, so I can understand how he would think that he had to line up with that bunch of people. He made a mistake because all the progressive blind were on the other side.
Baum: Was he progressive in his ideas?
Perry: Well. (hesitates) He was no great champion of anything. He was just a man who wanted to run the school and get his salary. I never heard of his springing any new ideas on anybody.
Baum: Was he aware of the problem of making a living that his students would have when they graduated?
Perry: No, I don't think so. I don't think he ever thought about it.
Baum: How did the separation of the school for the deaf and the school for the blind come about?
Perry: My old organization, which still exists, got up a plan to see if it could do something to separate the blind school from the deaf school. So we started propagandizing for it. Also there was a movement to have the school taken away from the board that governed it and have it become a part of the public school organization, be under the superintendent of education.
Baum: Did you favor that?
Perry: Yes. We all did. And propagandized for it. And eventually got it through.
Baum: How did you propagandize for it?
Perry: We wrote articles in the newspapers advocating it, and eventually we had a plan to be put on the ballot if we could get enough signatures, and have it enacted.
Baum: When did you start all this?
Perry: 1912. The movement to do away with the board--that was passed by the legislature, so the old board withdrew. That didn't happen for two or three years.
Then we worked on a plan to separate the two schools. The idea was to have the school up here where we have both of them now and build a new school for the deaf. The deaf are much more numerous than the blind. We wanted the blind to stay here. We advocated getting a big piece of land for the deaf where they could learn, in addition to academic subjects, trades and farming. It always struck me that farming was a thing that the deaf could do as well as anybody. There was nothing for them here that they couldn't get out in the country just as well. They used moving pictures; they could use them up in the country just as well. I wanted the blind to be near, where they could go to musical concerts and go to college. I thought Berkeley was an ideal place. I wanted the Deaf School to move to the country.
Baum: You weren't able to accomplish that, were you?
Perry: I got the act written, and then we had to get signatures. We had no money or any great number of people that agreed with us. Teachers at the school didn't want anything of that kind. They wanted things left alone. None of them understood what it meant, anyhow.
A few young alumni, maybe eight, went out and tried to get signatures. Ernest Leslie and Leslie Schlingheyde were among them. I'd take them down to the crowded Tenth Street Produce Market in Oakland. Then I'd address the crowd, and they would be there with the petitions to be signed. On one Saturday we got more than 11,000 signatures. We did very well, but we had no statewide team and no money. We had to hire someone to look up every signature and find out what precinct the voter came from. I used up all my war stamp savings for that purpose, and it took me two years of monthly payments to pay off the printer's bill on our advertising.
We didn't get enough signatures. We were 10,000 short of what we needed, but that was a very good showing. There was so much propagandizing along with it that a great many people had joined our idea. So I really was going to run it again, the year following, but I didn't have the time. I thought I'd let it go for a while.
The legislature was finally convinced that they should be separated somewhat. Instead of following what we suggested, they kept the two schools here but separated them administratively. They are separate but on the same ground, which I don't think is really good for the deaf, and I don't believe there's enough ground allotted to the blind. But they were separated and have separate principals.
Baum: I have a note that the separation was in 1921.
Baum: Think that was largely due to the propagandizing of the Alumni Association?
Baum: It sounds as if your alumni group was quite active.
Perry: It became very active.
Baum: Had they been active while you were in New York and Europe?
Perry: No, they had gone to sleep. But, when they understood that Keith wanted me to come, they got very active. They went to the board then and insisted that it take Mr. Keith's recommendation and have me come.
Baum: But ordinarily they didn't do anything unless you were right there keeping them moving?
Perry: Well, not very much. You had to have someone around to drive them. Of course, now things are somewhat different. Some of those boys have gone to college and have training, they have jobs, they're lawyers. Now we have lots of blind people who are holding good positions, and they are all interested in the progress of the blind. And now it's been made a national movement instead of a local one.
Baum: Now you have lots of leadership material.
Perry: Yes. Now we have clubs for the blind. My Alumni Association for the Blind was the only club that existed for a long time. Then we formed the Council for the Blind in 1934, and we encouraged the creation of local clubs of the blind to be run by the blind entirely. That was a new idea. No one had ever thought of the blind running a campaign for themselves; they always waited for someone to direct them.
Baum: Then you sort of trained the leadership that is available now?
Perry: Oh yes, they're all my boys. Dr. tenBroek, Robert Campbell, George Fogarty, Ernest Crowley, Ernest Leslie, Leslie Schlingheyde were my boys.
Baum: Is this mainly in California?
Perry: I did a good deal of that sort of thing in New York when I was there too. That's what my reader bill was supposed to do.
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